Every now and again we like to feature some guest posts from runners and their adventures in some of Australia’s toughest races. The GNW is about as tough as they get over here and despite the race now being held in September, the course and the weather can still be brutal. This course rips and tears your soul apart, before piecing it back together on Patonga Beach.
I ran in last year’s event (just the 100km ‘sprint’ option), and it was hot out there and it still hurt. In fact, I think the Congewai Valley is permanently hot all year round. But with all the talk of ‘100 milers’ here in Australia of late and it’s looking likely that a few more are going to hit the calendar, we thought it rather apt to share some miler experiences to get the running juices flowing and hope that many more of you will take the step up.
Simon Byrne, aka ‘Buna-The-Runner’ is just your average run of the mill guy that works hard. After a couple of GNW attempts that saw him run low to mid 30+hours for the miler, he decided to ‘get a bit serious’ and have a good old bash and being a little more competitive. It’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to publish this from Simon, to let pretty much anyone out there know that with some patience, hard-working application and a good old dose of stubbornness, anyone can make a good old fist of having a great race. So if you’re considering a miler this year, fill your tastebuds with some experience of others.
We’ll be publishing the report in a few sections, so I hope you’ll join us for the series of posts over the coming week or two. Our thanks go to Simon for sharing this
It’s true to say I’ve become slightly obsessed with the Great North Walks 100’s. As an Ultra marathon it is a low-key, yet spectacular and gruelling event, with the most incredibly friendly organisers and helpful volunteers.
My two previous attempts at the 108.9 mile/ 175.3km (2013 and 2014) had been marred by major navigation cock-ups, as well as my stomachs refusal to accept anything, once I’d ran passed about 120km.
I just wanted to get it right. Both previous attempts (33hrs 45mins and 31hrs 22mins) had quietly pissed me off. Not because of the finishing times, 2013 was my first ever ultra over 50km, (I finished it and was over the moon, in 38°C heat – a surprise to me as much as anything else – 75% didn’t finish that year), but the silly mistakes I’d made each year partly wrecked the final outcomes.
Yeah, learning experiences, I know!!
Without crew or pacer this year, it would be all about my preparation and planning.
I’d had the good fortune to have Mile27 coach Andy DuBois move into the area. I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d met him briefly in 2013 and he’d attended a few of the Thursday evening Byron Bay Runner’s pub runs. As the GNW approached, I sent him an email nothing short of begging him to coach me. Andy not only has an amazing knowledge of all things ‘Ultra’, a list as long as your arm of personal achievements, has both ‘elite’ and ‘normal’ international athlete success stories, but also knows the GNW race, as well as the terrain available to me around Byron Bay and its hinterland.
Thankfully he agreed and we met where all the greatest plans are hatched – the pub! And so began my first coached programme since I was in my teens. The confidence and variety Andy gave me in training, made it not only relevant, effective and injury free, but fun. I loved it!! I looked forward to 5-8hr Sunday long runs, hill sessions, even tempo/speed sessions?!!!!
The first 7kms of this 175.3km race are on road and head toward our section of the larger 260km Great North Walk trail. In 2013 I’d run this event with Jules Devlin for the first 104km to Yarramalong, the fourth CP (plus a major 2hr deviation before CP 3). Here I’d begun to struggle; he just got stronger and caned the final three sections, to still go under 30 hours. He’s a great mate and training buddy from Byron Bay. Together we chatted, whilst passing through fire trail, rain forest, overhanging caves and hills.
We reached CP1 in great spirits alongside Levi Martin (who’d paced Jules in that epic ‘2ndhalf’ effort) and Dave Graham (a fellow Mile27 runner, although I hadn’t met him at this point).
28.6km down, 146.7km to go…
Checkpoint 1 : Old Watagan Forestry HQ. 9:34am.
28.6km : 3hrs 34mins
The temperature had begun to creep up, but due to the races move from November to the cooler month of September (only 26-28°C), extreme Australian heat wouldn’t be as big an issue. In response to this and to add a bit of difficulty, the unmanned water stops had been removed this year, resulting in increased self-sufficiency.
The trail begins to head along a ridge and then descends to the extended road section into Congewai Public School, 23.9km away. Jules had begun to have some issues just before the descent. He’d stopped to go to the toilet and I’d continued to move along at a fairly gentle pace. I knew he’d catch me up and I’d banked on my efforts being consistent for the whole duration of the race. No pushing or slowing unnecessarily. Even effort! True enough, I looked back along an extended stretch of bitumen road and I could see him a few minutes behind.
Around me were three or four others, Kath Carty (who would go on to win the woman’s 100km event) and a few men. The usual conversations were struck, “miler or k’er”, “have you done it before”, “goal times?” etc. I pointed to a runner a few hundred metres ahead and commented that I thought it was Paul Cuthbert (I actually meant Paul Monks), both Paul’s had podium finished in 2013, 2nd and 3rd place respectively. One runner replied that he’d in fact loosely based last year’s race on Cuthbert splits, and finished under 24 hours, in 2nd place. I began to laugh,
“Well I’m gunna sound like a stalker, but you must be Dave Graham. Haha, I’ve been looking at your splits and have loosely planned my dream ‘A race’ on your schedule. Nothing concrete, but a framework to work with. I believe you’re also a one of Andy DuBois Mile27’s athletes.”
He said he was and we both chuckled, agreeing that all manner of things can happen and situations can change very quickly.
“How are we going then, are we on target”, he added.
At this stage we were bang on, and would be arriving at CP2 midday as hoped.
(Apart from navigation, and stomach/calorie issues, my check point times last year were tectonic compared to his total of only 29 minutes, for the whole event last year. Mine had been two and a half hours.)
Jules had run well along the road and we checked in within 4 minutes of each other at CP 2 (52.5km), Congewai Public School.
Checkpoint 2 – Congewai Public School. 12:12pm.
Leg 23.9km : 2hrs 33mins.
Total 52.5km : 6hrs 12mins.
My feet were feeling a bit uncomfortable so I change from a new pair of Injinji (toe socks) to a really knackered old pair. Mmm, much better! My Hoka One One Challenger ATR’s shoes were faring well too. I’d loved my minimal Inov-8 Trailroc 245’s, but their lack of mid-sole protection didn’t help with “De Agony of De Feet” in previous years. This was walking on clouds in comparison. I refilled my pack and downed some watermelon, coke and coconut water.
I was then reminded that this was the first mandatory weight and equipment check. Everything needed to be emptied back out, onto a tray and ticked off. Bugger, I’d forgotten about that. Jumping onto the scales, I’d dropped from 70.6kg to 67.8kg, not too bad, especially at this early stage. The extra time unpacking was a waste but compulsory.
Jules was already good to go and set off with Dave Coombes (running the 100km and acquiring final points for his application for the UTMB in France next year). Again we figured we’d be alongside each other at some point into the next section, so he kept moving!!
Back out along the road the course swings right onto what looks like private property and then the ominous ‘communications tower’ climb. There were a few runners ahead and I heard one shout to a separate group that they had deviated away from the track and were heading in the wrong direction. As they made their way back toward us I burst out laughing, “I should have bloody known who’d be leading that little detour! Dave don’t trust Jules’ navigation mate; he’s a nightmare!”
Jules protested, but I think we all know the truth mate!!!!
We regrouped as we approached the start of the climb. It was pretty warm by now, and Jules said that he and Dave were going take it easy on the ascent.
“Me too, I’m not looking to smash any ‘Strava segments’ myself.”
Occasionally it levelled slightly so I shuffled from a hike to jog and repeated this at each opportunity. Breaking out the poles (‘Black Diamond’ – Ultra Distance) I power hiked the steeper sections. Gradually, I realised I’d left the group and was moving along nicely. About half way up I could see Delina Rahmate (doing the 100 km) ahead of me. She’s an awesome endurance competitor and I’ve met her numerous times at races closer to home. We briefly spoke, but uphill conversations are rarely in-depth. Her aid station stop had been 10 minutes quicker than mine and her experience had got her back out much more quickly. I told her Dave and Jules weren’t far behind, and kept on moving up to the top.
Following a ridge, some beautiful undulating forest trail and a steep descent, is the next killer climb. When it arrives, it’s a relentless mix of ugly, uneven fire trail and single track, up to what had previously been the unmanned water stop (removed this year). Poles deployed I hiked, ran and picked off a few more runners. I was actually enjoying this. Those Sunday morning hours, running in Nightcap National Park, as well as relentless hill sessions and fell/ trail races back in the UK were paying off, this was honestly fun.
I was smiling and occasionally singing to myself. I’ve never been able to run with tunes, I enjoy music so much; it actually tends to mess with my running rhythm. When I run, I prefer the natural sounds around me or even just my feet.
For me this section is such a critical leg, and having now broken the back of the majority of it, I concentrated on getting in, and more importantly out of CP 3 during day light hours.
The out and back into CP 3 ‘The Basin Campsite’ is an uneven technical forest trail and was the location of the disastrous 2013 navigational mishap (we’d stayed on the actual GNW path without the CP detour??!!). Getting out of there in daylight makes the subsequent climb easier and puts you on track, as night falls, for a much easier descent down to the 9km road section into Yarramalong.
Checkpoint 3 – The Basin Campsite. 4:52pm.
Leg 29.2km : 4hrs 13mins.
Total 81.7km : 10hrs 52mins.
Join us for more of Simon’s run in a few days time…