Great North Walk 100-miler 2013, Central Coast Sufferfest pt. 1

I have learnt a lot about running in the last month – what it means to me, what I want to do better, and bits and pieces of practical knowledge, the kind that you’d expect to gain from running 3 100km races and a 100-miler in 30 days, with or without type 1 diabetes.

In no particular order

  1. I am in awe of runners who consistently get read-worthy race reports done within 48 hours of finishing their race. Text messages are presenting a challenge, let alone a race report.
  2. Runners with kids – how do you do it? We’re lucky to have a dedicated dog-minding service (thanks Mum n Dad!), but human puppies are just a whole extra level of wonderful dilemma for the committed runner.
  3. Ultrarunners with unsupportive partners. What? How do you cope? Can’t your unsupportive partner see this is the best activity in the world and that they should just leave the kids with a DVD and… oh wait… That’s how people make 2. work…

But the biggest teacher and biggest race of all was by far the Great North Walk 100-miler on the weekend. I will be writing up the very awesome Hume and Hovell 100km shortly, and so too the much faster (thank you, flat road!) Ned Kelly Chase 100 shortly, with the Great Ocean Walk race report from the run that started this Octember right here, but GNW demands immediate attention. Because its epicness towers above almost all of the running that I have ever done, even though I managed to really run so very little of it.

From the very start of the overall 4-ultra running challenge, GNW was on my mind, looming large as the most likely bringer of doom that I would need to battle and overcome. Every one of the 100-km races that I ran, I spent at least an hour thinking about how the Great North Walk miler would feel on legs that would probably be a bit tired the final event of my own personal Super Series. But during GNW itself over the weekend, I only thought for perhaps 5 minutes about how my body was probably carrying a bit of extra tiredness. I definitely reflected on the month past, recalling a kaleidoscope of fun, hard, and amazing moments, snippets of time defined by the people, the places, the pain or thrill of the moment. But just from sheer ultra habit, negatives were banned as soon as they were recognised for their deleterious potential.


Climbing up a hill, and by ‘hill’ I mean a muddy, raincarved stairway to Hell barely 25km into GNW on Saturday morning, I think to myself, ‘I wish my legs were feeling stronger, so I could do more than just plod right now. I’ve got nothing.’ But where is this going to take me? Is this the kind of self-talk I want to listen to for the next 20+ hours? If this was a conversation partner, would I consider them good company, or would I speed up or slow down to get away from them? So I counter with a memory of Brendan Davies talking about how he pulled out an exceptional month of running with a top 5 finish at the Ultra Trail Mt Fuji, a half-marathon PB, and a jaw-dropping course record at The North Face 100 by thinking over and over about how each race was making him stronger for the next. I returned to the internal dialogue by thanking my legs for putting up with me, and kept tramping up the slope.

When I’d run the same section as part of the 100km in 2010 (also one of the toughest races I’ve ever done, certainly one for surviving more than competing) the sun breaking through the treetops in the early morning had a laser-beam quality, searing with a heat so dense it almost had weight to it. This time, so far at least, the day was overcast and cool, humid but runnable enough. And now, albeit with much more running experience under my belt, I could hardly get into the next gear up from ‘fastpacking’ let alone ‘trailrunning’.

I also thought about how ultrarunning coach Andy Dubois had predicted that each successive long race for the month, the time taken for my legs to get moving would gradually lengthen, while the time taken until they would feel the burn would shorten. Andy’s a smart man.

Race Director Dave Byrnes' opening sermon delivered to the edgy throng under a chaotic portentous sky.
Race Director Dave Byrnes’ opening sermon delivered to the edgy throng under a chaotic portentous sky.

The day had started ideally enough. A massive convergence of trailies and aspirational roadies in a well-lit field in a small town that wouldn’t exist for most of us if this fantastic event didn’t plant its starting line on a quiet street here. Race Director, Dave Byrnes, with a sense of humour so well contained that his 100-miler is nearly 15km longer than it needs to be, briefs the semi-circular assembly from the back of a track while the dawn breaks behind him and a team of committed volunteers and Terrigal Trotters weigh runners, pack bag drops for checkpoints, and ready vehicles for moving. Runners mill through the crowd, nudging and whispering to friends from far away they hadn’t even expected to see today and best mates they run with any day of the week. Almost by group mind, at 5:55 or so we anticipate the coming moment and merge toward the invisible start line. Nervous chatter, a hush, then Dave’s ‘5, 4, 3, 2, go’ and we’re off with so little ceremony that the first kilometre has almost passed before my watch picks up a satellite signal and I press ‘Start’.

In the meantime, I’ve watched many of my friends and acquaintances stream out toward the middle distance and attached thoughts and wishes to many of them. I’m hoping Nikolay can get close to the success he had last year even though I’ve stolen his pacer, I’m sure Tall Geoff’s going to pull out a blinder because of the depth and quality of training he’s invested, I’ve smiled quietly to myself as Meredith has started in the middle of the field but I know she’ll finish at the head of it while people running away from her now will reach for their parachutes before their race is even half done.

And it’s an exciting year – there’s more international visitors than usual, there’s a big field, there’s many of the usual suspects but also a massive new crew, many wearing the green wrist band that says they’re in for a penny, in for a pounding. It’s not just the toughest 100km in Australia for these brave souls, but the toughest miler. We all know we won’t see Brendan again, and even though he’s an icon we hope we don’t see Bill Thompson again either, considering that he’s the race’s unofficial sweeper, a moving cutoff whose arrival means your minutes are numbered. But cutoffs aren’t going to be a problem, surely.

Bill Thompson. Legend, icon, lovely guy. And a sure sign that you're in trouble.
Bill Thompson. Legend, icon, lovely guy. And a sure sign that you’re in trouble.

Almost 5 hours later I’m getting into Checkpoint 1 in the Watagan State Forest and thinking, ‘what?’. Already I’m about an hour behind fairly modest expectations, even in humid but otherwise ideal conditions. I’m hoping my crew is ready for a long night, because things are already shaping up that way. Dr. John and I have one of our usual quick chats as he checks in with me to see if I’m happy with my sugars. Note to all people working with type 1 athletes – ‘are you happy with your sugars?’ is a much better question than ‘are your sugars good?’, because the books say that 6.0 is a good sugar and 12.0 is bad, but if I’m running up a dirty great big hill in the next hour, I know which one I’d rather have. So thank you John, you’re one of the ones who gets it.

More of the usual meet n greets on the trail, trotting chats and self-checking – feet good, legs woody but limbering up, bag heavy because it’s freshly filled, how good was that Coke, only 144km to go, let’s roll.

But soon enough, semi-disaster struck. Normally I keep running posts about running. Yes, I run ultra-marathons with type 1 diabetes, which is interesting for me, but probably not for you unless you’re trying to do something similar. But this was a sort of body-blow which really threatened to knobble my run. Already, the day had begun to dramatically heat up despite cool, humble beginnings. Rather than the long-established technique of manual insulin delivery by injection, by which I used to micro-manage on the run with up to around 12 injections a day, I have used an insulin pump for about 4 years now. It’s an advanced medical device that delivers insulin in pre-programmed and user-operated dosages throughout the day and, importantly, it does this through a very fine tube that crosses the skin barrier through an infusion set.

The infusion set is essentially a very thin tube passing through an adhesive backed disc which holds it fast to the skin for up to 5 days at a time. A 2-inch-long needle which pierces the skin sits inside this tubing at the time of insertion, but is then extracted to allow the tubing from the pump to connect and permit the delivery of insulin. If the infusion set becomes detached, there is no way of reinserting it. But the pump is more accurate than manual injection, it allows much greater spontaneity than the slower background insulin used by non-pumpers in conjunction with their fast-acting mealtime insulin, because the fast-acting insulin it delivers has a duration of around 3 hours in the body rather than a window that needs to be considered throughout a 14-23 hour period of action.

Long story short, my infusion set sweated off for the 2nd time in the day. I have had infusion sets sweat off perhaps twice EVER. I distinctly remember one sweating off around the 160km mark last time I ran GNW. I grabbed the spare I always carry out of my bag, replaced it with a quick jab, and kept going. But to have already used the spare and have nothing else to hand while still on the first morning of a 2-day run, and being up to 4 hours from the next checkpoint was a problem – practically, physiologically, and mentally.

Pondering this development I stomped along, thinking how to fix things. As a couple more runners came past I called out, ‘hey, what’s the cutoff time for Congewai?’, ‘5pm’ they helpfully called back.

Crap. I had never even looked at cutoffs for this race.

There was just no reason they should be an issue, short of something breaking. Thanks to course prep and a smart watch, navigation wouldn’t see me getting lost. Unless the temperature topped 40 degrees, that should be survivable too. But here I was, mentally off course and feeling like the engine might seize without a quick fix.

Even if I had a spare insertion set with me now, I’d be reluctant to use it. It would probably just sweat off again without a better solution. A friend whose partner is also type 1 happened to come running past at this point, just as I was fishing a syringe (the indispensable backup plan) from my pack. ‘Everything ok?’ she checked. ‘Yeah, just a bit of a self-management issue’.

A bit? Dehydrated from high blood sugars from insulin failing to deliver for who knows how long, energy level feeling less than reliable as another consequence, plus the simple fact that instead of thinking about running I was now thinking about a whole bunch of stuff other than the next footfall.

Once I’d taken charge with a temporary measure and made sure it was being done as sensibly as possible, I got to thinking about a solution that would cope with the rest of the race. As an absolute fallback position, I could resort to slow-acting insulin that I’d left with my crew, but with the inability to reduce dosage once injected, and the high probability of nausea with its consequent effect on carb intake, this wasn’t my preferred outcome. The simple thing to do would be to use a sports tape more typically used for knees and ankles on my stomach to create a more easily adhered to surface for the next infusion. Cutting a small hole for the tubing to pass through and also sit closer to my skin might increase chances of success. Apparently the reaction from the race doctors when I texted my support crew asking for wide Leukoplast and a scalpel was a mixture of interest and concern.

Hitting the road at Congewai it was a really happy moment to see Jane and Peter Trumper. Peter limits himself to marathons J but really appreciates and understands the headspace of ultrarunners, being married to the first woman to complete the Australian Grand Slam of Ultra (when will that reappear? Soon, I hope…). Jane’s a great mate and we have history on this race. Knocked out before the 50km mark with an injury a couple of years ago, she stayed on to support a number of us through the night and helping us to better outcomes than we could possibly achieve alone, which is the ultimate goal of any good support.

A few words of kindness and experience reset the context, reminding me that there was a long way to go. Yes indeed. Delivered the right way, it’s a message most of us need to hear, just like ‘you’re halfway there’ is a message no marathon runner should hear before the 30km mark.

A quick encounter with Alison on the way into Congewai, a short chat to a very ragged Japanese runner apparently fallen victim to the sudden heating up of the day, and then some relief in the form of my crewman, Graham Doke, walking up the road toward me with his typical large grin in place. 2:30, late again I apologized for holding him up. Rudely he rejected my apology and led me toward the most despised checkpoint in Australian ultrarunning. Congewai is almost always in the middle of the day, unless you’re a demon speedster. It’s always about 5 degrees hotter than the weather station a couple of valleys along will admit. It’s at the turning point of an out and back on unshaded road. And the only thing that makes it a bearable place to be is the wide and varied selection of support crews and race volunteers you meet there.

Canula sweating off and dooming you to coma and/or failure? This was a trade-off that worked well, some chafed skin in return for lifegiving insulin goodness for the rest of the event (and what an event it was).
Canula sweating off and dooming you to coma and/or failure? This was a trade-off that worked well, some chafed skin in return for lifegiving insulin goodness for the rest of the event (and what an event it was).

‘Beware the chair’ is a long-established ultrarunning mantra, and with good reason. The last thing needed by a runner who is feeling fairly mediocre on their feet, is a reminder of how much better they feel on their butt. Nevertheless… I gladly dropped into the chair Graham had prepared in the shade and began inhaling small squares of watermelon, a Coke, coconut water, more Coke. I prepped my insulin solution using the tools provided and hoped it would last, while Graham pulled my backpack for the next leg from the icebox where it had been sitting for close to 3 hours. Oh yes, I was way behind any notional schedule. Surveying Congewai, the carnage became apparent. A runner in a green 100-mile wristband had already swapped his shoes for sandals and looked like he was thinking of calling it a day. Another was sat picnicking after being timed out at checkpoint 1. Promising speedster Lise Lafferty came to say hi before leaving for a surf at Manly, definitely a more cheerful proposition than the remaining 51 race kilometres she was opting out of.

This wasn’t carnage demarcated by ability. Almost every level of runner across the course was having a rough day. The temperature had soared from 23 to 30, roughly 30 per cent, in a reported 20 minutes. Great North Walk is infamous for being an utter sufferfest. This year was expected to be savage because 2012 was atypically mild, but to be hit with an iron fist in a velvet glove was a new scenario many runners couldn’t have expected. When you’ve already run hard because conditions are ideal, it’s tough to physically, let alone mentally, adapt to such wildly swinging conditions. Suited up, 3.5kg lighter than when I was first weighed nearly 10 hours ago, I thanked Graham for his pervasive awesomeness and waved goodbye, hoping to see him again a lot sooner than I actually would.

The 30km stretch from Congewai to the Basin can be described in one word.


Because that one word is an answer to the question, ‘Are we there yet?’.

It starts with a dirty sharp climb up a Hill of Misery to a Radio Tower of Achievement. As I began the trudge up the hill, my good friend Nikolay in his instantly identifiable red and white stripey Where’s Wally racing top from St. George Athletics Club came staggering through the trees like a one-man Trailrunning Zombie Apocalypse. He more or less fell to the ground in an effort to stretch out his cramp-wracked legs. His eyes were focused in the middle distance and he talked of being unable to drink, the girl runner who had insisted on stopping to stay with him for half an hour further up the hill, dehydration, throwing up – all the good ultra stuff.

with my friend Nikolay, both starting the day very differently than we would finish it.

Fortunately Graham had filled my bladder with ice. Nik couldn’t stomach any more water but the extreme coldness on his head seemed to bring him a bit more to life. Talking with Dave Byrnes, RD, on the phone we got a bigger picture of the unfolding carnage. Course recordholder and probably Australia’s best current ultrarunner if looking at performances on road and trail, Brendan Davies, had hit checkpoint 3 and more or less collapsed for some time before getting moving again. The irony of heat-induced nausea experienced by runners as a result of exertion is that it becomes hard to even drink anything but cold water, but of course we are wearing our fluids close to our body and we’re lucky if they’re much colder than ambient temperature after even just a half hour.

Nikolay and I have a great shared history with this race. I first met him after posting on Cool Runnings to see if anyone had a spare bed in their motel room pre-race. He was doing the miles, I was doing the kays – my 2nd 100. I had no idea back then just how big an undertaking a 100-miler is, so I sat up rustling my drop bags while Nikolay tried to sleep. Last year I had the absolute joy of crewing Nikolay while my partner Jess paced him into a dramatic 2nd place. This year we’d grabbed a room together near the starting line and given his speed, I hadn’t expected to see him again, let alone staggering the wrong direction off a mountain.

As I continued the climb to the radio tower, the warzone motif of Congewai continued, with runners either heading back down looking defeated or sitting shellshocked beside the trail and set on turning around even within reach of the top.

As any trailrunning user of Vodafone can appreciate, at the top of the mountain next to a tower is about the best and only chance you’re going to get all day to reach out and touch someone. I called Jess to let her know that her pacing duties were probably going to get started a lot later and finished a lot, lot later than originally hoped. My own nausea had turned up, just to add to the blend of humid heat and diadrama. Hardly surprising, given that I’d put close to a litre of mixed fluids in on top of fruit after having had hardly anything but scant water in the preceding hour. She passed on a bunch of messages and well wishes from people posting on Facebook, which was frankly awesome and uplifting to hear. But still, anything more than a walking pace along the ridge and I was pretty sure my late lunch would make a reappearance.

Down the switchbacks, across the cowfield, and up one more stairway to Hell, a ridiculously steep series of short sharp ramps of clay and rock that promise to finish soon but seem to go on forever, with each one slightly steeper and longer than the last. Again, broken runners had stopped to either regain composure or give up almost completely and hope that an airlift would perhaps come to take them away. Darkly hilarious, this scene of self-imposed torture offered up nothing to smooth my guts or boost my running mojo so I ambled on, one heavy step after another.

At the top of the climb, the unmanned water stop was one more notable landmark to tick off the list, and keep going. Forgetting my water bottle here, I turned back after a hundred metres to collect it. Eagle, aka Ray James – a great character and exceptional marathon runner with a lot of history in his legs and some unfortunate history on this course – appeared for a quick chat and to refill his own drink containers. No offense to Ray, but this set off alarms for me. Just a few years before, I knew that he’d been taken out by the clock barely 15km before the Finish Line. He was looking stronger now than then and not carrying the injury that had probably slowed him down so badly before… but still…

The adrenalin of fear got me to snap out of the death march. I’d put on a shell as the wind began to kick up and resignedly put on my headtorch as well, killing 2 birds with one stone when my bag was off at the water stop and accepting that my torch was going to be on well before I got to the Basin – even though I’d been so happy to only turn it on as I was leaving last time we raced here.

Running slow and walking fast, at the threshold of having a race-destroying heave and still unable to take in food or drink with any kind of gusto or confidence, I made for checkpoint 3 with renewed zeal.

9:30, 6 hours for 29km, pathetic, I shuffled out of the single trail and into the long-sought light of the next stop. Smiling vollies and supporters all cheered and clapped, making everything feel better than it had seconds before, even if it probably wasn’t. Graham again butlered me to the chair. Paul and Diane, beautiful friends who race direct Coast2Kosci, came over from the volunteer kitchen that they help operate for everyone’s use to see how I was going. Feeling pretty ordinary, I confided to Graham that between my drink and one gel, I’d had about 70 grams of carbohydrate in the last 6 hours. The 3 of them sprung into action. While I alternated between small bites of the baby potatoes laid on by Graham and the vegie soup which Diane kept refilling with soup juice, Graham and I negotiated what else would be needed for my bag for the next leg. Ice cold water was the plan, even with the sun long gone. Dolmade (vine leaf wraps) were tucked into a plastic bag for my top pocket. With only 20km to the next stop I still had all the gels and Clif Bloks left over from the last leg.

But I wasn’t moving yet. In front of me, more carnage. Kirrily was bailing, with a happy head and legs that were over it she was smartly saving herself for C2K, now barely 4 weeks away. The space blankets were coming out and our friend Annabel was also hitting eject. Fair enough, though, she’s been knocking out big races all year. Some runners ignore it, but they definitely add up. But in the midst of this, my race took a new shade of panic. Bill Thompson came bouncing in to loud applause with his schoolbag style backpack and sat down for a sausage sandwich and a Guinness.

At GNW, Bill is the Grim Reaper. He’s a lovely smiley chap with plenty of GNWs to his name and he always finishes the day just a few minutes before cutoff. If he gets ahead of you, that’s the universe’s way of saying speed up or quit. Smiling to himself at my heightened anxiety over the arrival of Bill, Paul gave me a running commentary.

‘Yep, he’s finished his sandwich and his beer. I think he’s onto dessert, it could be a cheesecake or a piece of Brie.’

This was serious. I got some umeboshi plums into my system. They’re one of the sourest tastes I know, used in Japanese healing as a medicinal food and one of the best things I know for putting you right where you are. Even as I felt them consolidate my digestion, Bill flew out of the checkpoint with a big grin on his bearded face.

Quickly, I grabbed my things and took off, again to the supportive cheers of the brilliant Basin crowd. They were having a party, while some of us felt like we were at our own funeral – life in balance. As I headed up the track I realised I’d left my reflective safety vest behind in the hurry to leave. Yay, I thought, dropping my bag and turning to go back for it. As I approached the Basin again I called out for the crowd not to cheer and instead save it for the next actual runner. They clapped anyway. What can you do?

Out of the Basin, up to the road, collect a navigation-challenged passenger on the way, turn up the iPod and let the music get me moving. The other runner goes on ahead while I stop to sort out some blood sugar readings and make sure all my gadgets are in order and protected from the strengthening rain.

The Great North Walk 100 course. A complete weekend’s fun for the whole family, not for the fainthearted or weak-legged.

Through the rainforest, actually in the rain for a change, and down to the road. Hitting the road to Yarramalong is normally the time when I would start to collect other runners but there’s nobody left to collect. I saw Andy Hewat and a few others heading into the Basin when I was heading out, but he’d had his runner’s fill for the day and I feel like I’m caught between cutoffs and a slow place. Surge, walk, stagger. The sleep thing even kicks in, and I numb out in a slow zigzag in the darkness in the middle of nowhere, just kilometres from where my pacer has been waiting for hours. Amateur!

It’s not the volume on my iPod or the caffeine that kicks in. It’s the suddenness of being overtaken by a couple of French runners that wakes me up and gets the motor going again. They pass me well, dropping me entirely, but when I see them again they are sitting by the road and asking if it’s 6 kilometres to the checkpoint. I look at my watch and estimate 8km. They look crushed and continue to sit as I wish them well. I feel bad when 5 minutes later a sign appears saying 3km to Yarramalong.

It’s after 2:30 when I get into Yarramalong, the 103km mark. It’s taken nearly an hour longer to get here than the year when I was just doing the kilometres and my feet blew apart from being wet for 15 hours. Even with the one hour stop back then to put them together again with salt and tape and borrowed socks, it turns out that it’s possible to take even longer getting to Yarramalong.

Now was time for a bit of everything. A hug and quick kiss for pacer Jess from the discombobulated runner zombie, more soup, babybel cheese sandwiched between salt n vinegar chips, bag stuff, inconveniently uphill toilet stop. Bill Thompson’s sitting there looking quite happy with life and wearing a blanket. Even the Grim Reaper has pulled out. This is getting out of hand completely. I had lost most concept of time but it turns out that we left at about 3:30am, again, just half an hour before cutoff.

I had not thought of quitting. But the prospect of falling too far behind had seemed real enough earlier in the day. Now, even though I was oblivious, it was a very real threat that could come crashing down on us before the adventure was properly settled. And a DNF here would entirely destroy the thrill of Octember.

‘Can a simple man with an outrageous plan put his body through an apparently ridiculous 30-day endurance challenge with an unknowable outcome and emerge triumphant?’ I had dared to ask.

‘No,’ a time-fail DNF would reply, bluntly.

—- to be continued —-

4 thoughts on “Great North Walk 100-miler 2013, Central Coast Sufferfest pt. 1

  1. Great to see you made it Roger, we only met briefly in Patonga waiting for the bus. I dropped at Congewai and am suffering from Post Traumatic Ultra Disorder! I wonder now if I should have pressed on, could I have pressed on, whens the next race? What did I do wrong? How can I redeem myself? You made it through with so much more willpower than I could muster and I am in awe of your achievement. Next time I will draw inspiration from your run – waiting for the next instalment…

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