The quality of this year’s North Face 100 field had me excited weeks ago. It was one of the reasons I decided to break from four years of running in the event, to take a back seat and watch the front-runners battle it out and report on proceedings – and what a battle it was.
Three years ago Aussie trail running was in its own little world, before a bunch of internationals decided to see what all the fuss was about in the Blue Mountains and dominate our most popular individual trail 100km event. Records were smashed beyond what we thought was possible, and if I’m honest, I truly thought we wouldn’t see matched by an Aussie for at least another 2-3 years. Why, because I lacked the curiosity to ask, ‘what if?’
But along came Brendan Davies and Beth Cardelli. These two have been on the running scene for a while now, and its fair to say that both ‘were’ good Aussie competitors. Yesterday’s results have seen them rise to global international competitors. People will start to take note now. They’ll see Brendan’s name on the list and say, ‘he’s the guy that beat Kilian’s record down under’. I think sometimes we can get carried away down here in Australia as to how good we are compared to the rest of the world. We can sometimes be unaware as to the levels guys and girls in Europe and the US operate on. Beth and Brendan are closing that gap at a rates of knots.
The great thing about these two however is their humility. Speaking with Brendan after the race yesterday, he was still down-playing his achievement on the course. But the fact is that he has broken a record held by a man regarded as the world’s best endurance athlete. Did Kilian race hard when he came down here two years ago? Who cares? Brendan ran a 100 miler with 9000m of ascent three weeks ago. Horses for courses, the fact is that you can only beat what’s laid down in front of you, and the man from Woodford in the Blue Mountains did exactly that, achieving what no-one thought would be done, and as he said to me yesterday, beyond maybe what he thought he could do. It was pretty special.
Beth is now quite rightly the ‘Queen of the North Face 100’. She’s won this event three times and yesterday beat her own course record… again. After Hanny Alston dropped at CP4, no-one could get near Beth, and in similar vein to Brendan has moved up another gear this year in terms of training, ability and results. The surprise package (although no surprise to Blue Mountains locals), was the performance of Jo Brischetto in the final leg and grab a fantastic second place.
People who know Jo, know that she has great potential. I remember racing her at 6ft track a few years ago and she’s a tough competitor. She also trains with Brendan, so that will give you some idea as to why she’s now starting to plant her name in the upper echelons of the female trail running fraternity. The other amazing fact about Jo’s run yesterday was that it was her first 100kms, which we think shows the potential she has. Having been plagued with injuries for a great deal of the last 12 months, its great to see someone like Jo get her just reward with a brilliant second place and a time of 11hrs 45mins. All we can say, watch this space – Jo could be giving Beth a run for her money in the not too distant future.
The best thing to come out of the ladies race yesterday however is that we’re starting to get a good crop of ladies who have the talent and ability to all challenge each other and push each other hard. Ladies racing used to be about two or three runners finishing hours ahead of the rest. But that situation is changing very quickly and it’s great to see. We now have the likes of Jo, Gill Fowler, Hanny Alston and Beth all battling up front, with a further crop of 12-13 hour North Face runners who are challenging too. Competition is good for our sport as it drives standards. While it’s clear from the racing yesterday that Beth is leagues ahead, finishing over 40 minutes in front of Jo, the lines are being drawn and the racing over the coming years is going to be mouth-watering.
Hanny was talked up a lot, and rightfully so to be honest. She’s a world-class athlete in orienteering with a priority on the world championships in five weeks. She battled hard with Beth yesterday for 65kms and gave a glimpse of what is possible. She has nothing to prove having already gone toe to toe with Matt Cooper over 80kms at Cradle Mountain in February this year. For Hanny it’s a matter of time, but it was great to see her step up and have a go.
So what of Brendan? It really has been his year thus far over the longer stuff and it was an absolute privilege to watch him race yesterday. Each time I saw him, he looked strong and razor-sharp in his focus – he was a man on a mission. As he ran into the last checkpoint (probably around sub 4 min kms by the way), I looked at my watch and said to his wife that he’s on for a 9:25. It’s a hard thing to call as you don’t want to pump him up too much in case something goes wrong. Even at halfway, I conservatively called him for a 9:35 based on his pacing, but he just got quicker and quicker. It was amazing to watch.
But aside from the physical exertion, the thing that really intrigued me was his mental focus. Speaking with Brendan’s better half, Nadine, she offered me some real insights into how the hell he continues to impress and back up. It all comes down to his mental attitude. There were two things that really struck me yesterday that she said. The first was his firm belief that everything was going to be great and that he was going to have a great race. That’s the positive mental attitude. But combined with that was his ability to be ‘curious’. This really struck a chord with me.
I have on a professional level been researching our ability to be curious in my day job outside of Ultra168. I find it fascinating, and when someone talks about it, I listen intently. All of us are curious in some way, shape or form. It’s our ability to act upon it that is another thing entirely. Running is quite a curious pastime. We’re sure that your friends and family have asked you why you run these long distances. Why do people want to climb Everest? Simply because ‘it’s there’. Just three weeks ago I decided to go on a rather long run in the Blue Mountains and connect a few trails that I had been meaning to for a while.
Simply because I was curious and it ‘was there’.
It’s this aspect of curiosity that fascinates me about Brendan’s race yesterday. He wanted to see what he was made of, to push himself to new boundaries and see where they would take him. He doesn’t start with a pre-determined result or ending in mind, because with curiosity you cannot put a number or result against what you’re about to do. It’s the fear of the unknown and what might happen that makes us want to explore, and it’s this quality that I feel is essential if you want to be a runner at the top of your game.
You only have to look at a certain Kilian Jornet and what he does throughout his whole life. He may run, ski and climb mountains, but he does it because he’s curious about where it will take him. There is no pre-defined route or result that he’s looking for, the notion of what he is doing will help him find that out as he sets upon his journey. Brendan is now starting to think like this, and it will take him far.
Another man who holds similar qualities is Vajin Armstrong. eloquent, humble and very talented, Vajin ran hard yesterday, but was blown away by the sheer determination and curiosity of Brendan. Vajin ran a PB of ten minutes and if you were a betting man, you would have said that with just 9 minutes between him and Brendan at the aquatic centre at CP4, you would have thought this is where Vajin comes into his own. Traditionally a better climber than Brendan, the leg between CP4 and 5 contains 6kms of beautiful uphill slog. The scene was set for Vajin to close the gap with all to play for in the last leg.
But Brendan took Vajin to town. He added another 13 minutes to his lead here, running all of Kedumba pass like a man on a mission. Vajin rocked up into CP5 like a man who knew he’d been schooled on hill climbing. He fought hard all day long, but had come up against a man who knew no boundaries of his own limits yesterday, both physically and mentally.
As we reported in our preview, all the talk was of sub 10 hour racing yesterday, and a number of guys put their balls on the line to do so. Andrew Tuckey again showed his class and consistency with a PB of over ten minutes, monstering the last leg to overtake Rob Walters for third in 9:45. For me, Rob’s performance was one of the runs of the day, crossing the line in 9:50. Rob is a unit, a big guy who can move effortlessly. I watched him all day long and he looked comfortable and at ease while others were puffing hard. You can tell he had trained hard and paced himself well and he finished with a reward that justified his efforts.
A special mention also to a friend of mine, Jono O’Loughlin who broke under the 10 hour barrier with seconds to spare. I’ve trained with Jono many times and he’s been talking a sub 10 for months. His ability to hurt himself is unparalleled and while he looks like he’s blowing hard all the time, he’s one of those guys who can just keep hurting for over nine hours and not fall off the pace. It was great to see him cross the line with pure elation.
Others didn’t have a great day, but that is running and you take the hi’s with the low’s. The talk of the town, Ryan Sandes pulled at CP2 with stomach issues. We said he would win bar a major catastrophe, and that catastrophe happened. But that doesn’t take away anything from Brendan. I truly believe that had Ryan been able to carry on yesterday, I’m not sure he would have won. Brendan was out to prove a point yesterday and he did it in style, and he did it because he was curious. He was curious to know, ‘what if I went out hard?’ ‘What if I shut out the pain?’ ‘What if I push myself to run just over an hour on that last leg?’
I believe that to be successful, one of the most important attributes you need to have is to question the realms of what’s possible and to be curious. If we lose curiosity, we lose our ability to develop and advance. I have a feeling that Brendan and Beth, along with many other Aussie runners will continue to ask themselves what’s possible, and to be curious with their running and where it will take them.