• No categories

UTMB 2011 Race Report

Warning: This is a very long post .. it’s hard to do justice to a 43 hour ultra in 100 words or less.

As you can see from my previous posts, I arrived almost two weeks before the race started for a little R&R and to see if I could benefit from some altitude acclimatisation. The town got busier and stocks of all essential gear got scarcer .. as did the supermarket shelves in the fruit, nut and bread departments. 
The clouds roll in
Race Day
I’m up at 8am, trying desperately to get back to sleep. The race starts at 6.30pm so I really need all the rest I can get but no go. I’m wide awake. I faff around all day trying my best not to think about what I’m about to attempt that evening. The Desert King is here for support, not racing since he’s being sidelined with an injury. I pester him with my worries, mainly that there are thunderstorms predicted for the start and I really don’t want to do this now!

An update from Ryan Sandes on Facebook at about noon, and an official text a couple of hours later delay the start by 5 hours to 11.30pm:

“UTMB: important storm + cold weather + rain or snow. UTMB start at 11:30 p.m. The route doesn’t change, except Vallorcine-Chamonix by the bottom of the valley.”

Then a text update with new time barriers. The cut-off in Chamonix has been changed to 1900h, which is NOT 5 hours later than the original finish at 1630h. That means the race has been shortened to 43h 30mins to complete. Apparently one less climb and a “fast, flat” finish equals less time required .. what about us mere mortals???

It’s the first few texts of many over the next 60 hours or so.

The delayed start is actually welcome news for me. I’ve been dreading the start for the last 2 days knowing that the weather wasn’t going to be favourable, plus memories of my DNF in the Blue Mountains due to cold were not exactly encouraging. An extra 5 hours to psyche myself up then. I pack and re-pack my kit, making sure I’ve got everything. I try on all the gear I’m going to wear at the start, checking to see if I’ll be warm enough. 

Drop off my bag for Courmayeur at 4.30pm, see Lizzy Hawker chilling in the lobby of Hotel Alpina, and try not to think about what lies ahead. I’m so nervous I think I’m going to throw up. The weather is gorgeously sunny and only a hint of cloud … maybe the forecast was wrong?? One can hope!

I manage to squeeze in a short nap about 6pm, and wake up with a calm resignation. I’m doing this, no jibbing out. Just get your ass on the start line and take it from there. My pre-race meal is a filet-o-fish meal from McDonald’s .. not my usual fare, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

All wrapped up
Here’s what I’m wearing at the start:
Gore thermal beanie
Visor (to keep the rain off my headlamp!)
Buff (round my neck)
long sleeved thermal compression top
Dri-fit short sleeved top
long sleeved lightweight fleece
Gore-tex waterproof jacket with hood
long compression tights
Gore-tex waterproof pants
Falke trail socks
Brooks Cascadia 6
Sealskinz waterproof gloves
Petzl Tikka plus headlamp

I’m wrapped up like a kid learning to ski. There’s a spare Buff and gloves in my pack, but otherwise I’m wearing all the mandatory kit. Hope it’s enough!

Race Start – raining
I get suited up at 10pm, then Desert King and I walk to the start in the rain. I still feel like I’m about to throw up with nerves. At least I’m warm and dry. The start is packed with people. Nearly everyone is wrapped right up, headlamps on and trying to focus. I find a spot about 30m back from the start gantry and am quickly closed in by all the other runners. I’m standing there for nearly an hour. There are some announcements in French and then the same in English, but the accent and accoustics aren’t great so I don’t know what’s been said. Somehow I miss the start announcement in all the clamour, and then we’re off.
I have to walk the first 200m or so before the crowd thins out and I can start trying to get some momentum. It’s a little daunting starting in the dark and cold, and I concentrate on keeping warm. We run through small villages to Les Houches (8km), and I topped up some water at the drinks station. All along the way there are groups of supporters clanging cow bells and shouting encouragement. Acting on earlier advice, I get my poles out after Les Houches as we begin the climb to Delevret. I can see a line of headlamps just winding up through the trees everytime I look up. The trail is narrow and passing isn’t easy so most of us keep in line and try to keep pace with the person in front. 

My only strategy is walk uphill and try to run anything flat or downhill. Great in theory, till you realise the some descents are hardly runnable! 

Somewhere in the first 30km … still smiling despite the rain!

Saint-Gervais (21km) – still raining
After the top (14km), there’s the descent to Saint-Gervais .. no chance of taking it easy there! It’s 7km of steep downhill on mostly singletrack and grassy fields that have been soaked in the rain, then trampled on by the hordes in front. Nothing to do but slide down a very slippery slope of mud and switchbacks, do my best not to crash into anyone or cause any bodily harm with my poles. At least I had some practice in Sabah! True to form I slip and fall, but no lasting damage done given the many layers of clothing I have on. There were definitely casualties from there, and it seemed like ages before I finally got to the first aid-station at Saint-Gervais in 3:22:21. Steady does it!

Saint-Gervais feels like a sudden rush of civilisation, friendly faces everywhere, runners covered in mud filling water, grabbing food and adjusting kit. I’m momentarily confused by lights and people and forget I don’t need anything except some water. Then I remember I’m desperate for the loo and can’t see one anywhere. I have to ask a steward and he points me to the public toilets about 200m away. 

Croix du Bonhomme (45km) – will this rain ever stop???
Coming out of Saint-Gervais, it’s a gradual climb to Les Contamines (31km), then on to La Balme (39km). I make Les Contamines in 5:09:19, then up towards Notre Dame Gorge .. gradual climb, my a**! Training in pancake-flat Singapore didn’t help, but seriously, even the gradual climbs are worse than anything we have over here.

Much steeper climb to La Balme, and by now I’m grumpy, freezing and not at all certain about my chances of finishing this damn thing. My fingers start to hurt from the cold and I put on an extra pair of gloves to try and keep warm. My feet are soaked through and freezing, and I haven’t eaten as often as I would have liked due to having to keep up the pace on the narrow track and hang on to my poles at the same time. Desperate for the loo again and a relief when I finally get to La Balme in 7:02:35. It’s about 6.30 in the morning now and it’s starting to get light. After a water refill, there’s a huge bonfire on the way through the aid station which I stop at. And quickly move on from as I can already feel the pull to sit down, rest and warm up in the tantalising heat. Bugger. 

I look up and see a tiny trail of runners snaking all the way past where I can see. Even more of a bugger. Next stop is Croix du Bonhomme, the first major climb to 2500m altitude. 

I’m colder than I’ve been all night, and the higher I go, the colder I’m getting. My brain and body are both fighting to shut down and this is my lowest point so far. All I can do is concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. Small steps, try not to look up and see how the end is nowhere in sight and it just looks like we have to climb forever. I’m close to tears, hungry, and frustrated with myself at how cold I am. My fingers are stinging despite two pairs of gloves and I’m worried about frostbite. The sun is coming out, but there’s only light, no heat. Runners are passing me in droves and many ask if I’m all right .. I must look as bad as I feel! There’s snow and ice all over the terrain now, and the few times I’ve looked up it looks beautiful and brutal in equal measures.

It feels too early to have to dig so deep, but I’m thinking of all the messages of support and encouragement, of the fact that I’m the only Singaporean representative at UTMB this year and all the blood and sweat I’ve put into training to get to this point. I think about my DNF in the Blue Mountains and suck it up.

It’s nearly 2 hours from La Balme when I finally reach the top of Croix du Bonhomme. I figure I’ve been passed by about 200 runners … I find out later I’m not far off the mark at all. 

There’s no elation, just some relief as I walk across the top and try to pull some food out my top pocket. It takes me 6 tries to get anything out .. my fingers aren’t working from the cold. I opt for a piece of bak kwa (barbecued pork) for the taste and an immediate hit of calories .. and it nearly feels like the last straw when I bite into it and it’s frozen from the cold. I manage to have a few pieces and it seems to help. Just keep moving forward. I still feel like I want to quit, and I’m struggling with it. And definitely worried about frostbite .. are my fingers supposed to hurt so much??

Col de la Seigne (60km) – hail and sleet    
It’s 5km downhill to Les Chapieux on steep technical trail. There are multiple small trails that all lead the same way so not much queueing here. I try to pick up a little speed knowing I’ve lost a lot of time on that last climb, but it’s difficult given how cold and slippery everything is. Steady does it then. Still thinking about giving up. I’m really not built for the cold. 

I can see prints in the snow from runners before me, and more significantly, where they’ve lost their footing and slipped down the steep slopes. I get a little warmer as we lose altitude, and it’s nice to move with a little more momentum. The aid stop at Les Chapieux is a welcome sight and I stay there over 20 minutes trying to regroup.

So far I’ve been taking Endurolytes and Anti-Fatigue Caps together with a Hammer bar or a tube of Perpetuem Solids every hour, but climbing really doesn’t allow me to break pace for food or supplements, so now I take a double dose of supplements every couple of hours or whenever I can, and get ready to eat if I’m going downhill or at an aid station. I’ve worked out my essential list at each aid stop – Water, Toilet, Food, Stones (WTFS .. worked for me!) in that order. I just refill whatever it looks like I’ve drunk, run to the loo (the cold is not helping with this, but at least I’m well hydrated!), try and eat a bar or some Solids, and remember to tip the stones out of my shoes … that’s what happens when you decide not to wear gaiters! I haven’t had anything apart from water at the aid-stations, but it looks like they’re well-stocked, with sweet and savoury tables clearly marked.

And then we’re climbing again. I look at my laminated map (best idea ever!) and this nearly takes away my will to go on .. we’re headed back up to 2500m … get ready to freeze again. This time it’s worse. Despite being daylight, it’s sleeting and hailing and my gloves are icing over. The climb is brutal and soul-sapping, and takes me 3 hours to get to the top. I thought there was an aid stop there and was using the lure of a cup of hot soup to get keep me going. Everything I whined about the climb to Croix du Bonhomme? Triple my misery on this one. And another 200 or so pass me. Not that I actually care at this point. 

“Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” – Ovid 

That was a shared with me a day before the start (thanks, Lars!), and one I clung to for most of the race. One step at a time, just keep moving forward. Even if it’s on autopilot. Every step forward is one step closer to the finish. It’ll take more than a bloody mountain to break me, but at this point it’s a very close call.

It literally takes everything I have to get to the top. I’m so cold I really think my brain has decided to shut down to save itself. There’s no aid-station at the top. Just a large yellow North Face Tent, a giant transparent plastic box and a few amazingly enthusiastic marshalls scanning runners’ bibs, telling everyone it’s 5km downhill to the aid-station. That’s when I burst into tears. I’m desperate for warmth and a little respite, and I cannot describe my despair when I get there and realise I have to keep going. But I do. There’s nothing for it. If I lingered I’d freeze to death, no drama about it, I was honestly that cold. Just keep moving forward. I AM dripping water. Me and my nose.
Snow and sleet at the top of Col de la Seigne. Photo credit 
Warming up on the downhill, feeling a little better with a bit of speed, and when I get into the aid station at Lac Combal (65km) I feel almost human again. My first taste of some hot soup, coke, and a few slices of salami. The sun is shining and I sit on the grass to tip the stones out of my shoes. 

I also get a text that reads: “Course change after Champex, Bovine inaccessible due to a deterioration after bad weather yesterday. Track deviated by Martigny. =170km, 9700mD+”

It doesn’t sink in till later that means the course is now longer and higher.

I leave the aid station reluctantly and head uphill again. Back up to 2435m altitude, but the sun is blazing now and my billion layers are making me overheat. I stop by the side and take off my waterproofs and fleece .. that’s better .. and then have to stop 200m further uphill to put my waterproof jacket on again. It gets cold fast when you gain altitude! Some chatty Spanish guys keep pace with me and it’s the best climb so far to the Arete du Mont-Favre.

Downhill to Col Checrouit and I get a text from Desert King to say he’ll see me in Courmayeur. Nothing like knowing there’s a friendly face waiting for you to pick your spirits up! Plus I also got a text from him that said “Pain is temporary, but your race result posted on the internet is FOREVER.” Yep, thanks.

Courmayeur (78km) – it’s not raining anymore!!!
It takes me nearly 2 hours running downhill to get to Courmayeur, including my stop at Col Checrouit. I’m mindful of my quads starting to feel sore from descending and hope I’m not blowing them up too soon. The run down is still technical in some places and I say a prayer of thanks that I’m still in one piece so far! 
Courmayeur … Yay!!
Running through the town to Courmayeur checkpoint .. clean clothes ahead!


Coming into Courmayeur is uplifting. The sun is shining, I’m warm at last, and I know I can take a short break to regroup for the next half. By all accounts, that’s where the difficult bits really are. Yikes. There are groups of people cheering and waving, shouting “Bravo!” and “Allez!” as they have been all along the way. I run into the checkpoint, Desert King is there waving and taking pictures as I pick up my kit bag and head indoors. At all the checkpoints there is a separate area for runners with support crew so that they don’t impede those running alone. Desert King can’t follow me upstairs to the main aid station area (looks like carnage all around), so I change out of my wet stuff (yep, still wet after 17 hours!) and head back downstairs for some moral support. 

I’m glad I put everything in ziploc bags as I’ve since heard reports of runners getting their halfway bag only to realise everything inside is soaked. So good to have dry socks again! 

So now I’m in new kit:
Clean visor
Clean Buff
lightweight long sleeved thermal top (the weather’s supposed to get better)
Dri-Fit short sleeved top
3/4 compression tights
calf compression
Falke trail socks
Cascadia 6 (same shoes. Opted not to change as I prefer these to the spares I packed)

My jacket, waterproof pants, fleece and gloves have to stay with me as part of mandatory kit, but the stinky wet stuff gets sent back to Chamonix in my kit bag. Yippee! I eat as much as I can whilst trying to relay the last 17 hours to Desert King without spitting food all over him. Dried mango, Hammer bar, 500ml of Recoverite, bak kwa and some supplements. Then a marshall comes over to warn me about the time. I’ve spent nearly an hour at Courmayeur! I’m off in a bit of a hurry, and it’s a climb immediately out of the checkpoint. I remember thinking “Wow, there must be a lot of Italian tourists here” as I heard cheers of “Brava!” being shouted …  I only twigged a lot later that I’d entered Italy.

Arnuva (95km) – cold again 🙁
I find a rhythm and just plod ahead, now catching up with a few people and trying to make some ground. The walking poles are a godsend (thanks, Bernard!) and I somehow tap into some new energy and make good progress to Refuge Bertone (82km). I don’t want to break pace now and leave it too late to put my warm stuff  back on (we’re back up to 1989m) and have to find a sheltered spot to put my kit on. The wind has a real bite to it and everyone else is stopping to put their warm kit on as well. I can’t believe how quickly my disposition changes when I get cold. Not quite so enthusiastic now.

I stop for water and hot soup .. it really is cold and windy now and there’s very little shelter at the checkpoint. I meet Seow Kong, a Malaysian chap who was doing the race in Vibram Five Fingers. He’s looking strong, and we head towards Refuge Bonatti (90km) together. He then goes on ahead as I linger there a while, trying to warm up with more soup. It’s getting dark now and I’ve got my headlamp out. 

I lose my rhythm with the fading light and soon I’m going slower than I should. I drop back from the small group of runners I’m trying to keep pace with as I fight sleep. My eyes keep closing and I can’t focus on the trail. My headlamp’s not bright enough and this is making me feel even more drowsy. I have to stop to get a caffeine tablet as I can’t get it out with my gloves on and poles attached. I lose the pod of runners in front and am quickly overtaken by another group not far back. Not good at all. I hang on to the tail end of the second group as best I can and will myself to wake up.

Someone came past at speed shouting in French about cut-off times. The cut-off at Arnuva is 2245h. I have 30 minutes and I’m not sure how far I have to go. At this point I’m still in two minds about finishing. It’s cold and I’m miserable again. Someone ahead says we’ll never make it in time. I know if I keep this current pace my UTMB attempt is over. I think the caffeine kicks in then and I pick up my pace. It’s downhill in the dark now and I’m doing my best to shout a warning in French as I try to pass runners on the singletrack. I have to at least try. I can’t face a DNF if I don’t at least try to get there in time. I gain momentum and run like a crazy person. I can see lights through the trees and hear the shouts of encouragement .. 5 minutes to go .. not sure if I’ll make it! I give everything I have to get there within the cut-off, to hell with my quads! A runner I pass shouts to tell me I’m crazy and I’ll never make it .. aaaaaaarghh! I’m there!

The checkpoint marshall tells me it’s 2245h exactly, and I have 30 minutes before I have to leave the aid station because they EXTENDED THE CUT-OFF TO 2315h. Thanks for not texting me about that change!!! I nearly broke my neck running downhill to make it on time! Still, I’m relieved my race is still on and have a cup of coke to celebrate. I see Seow Kong again and we decide to set off together for the next bit. It’s very cold now, dark and we now face a 4km climb to Grand Col Ferret at 2537m.

La Fouly (110km)  
I think my mad dash to Arnuva and the caffeine tablet I took really gave me a new lease of life for the next section. I found a rhythm quickly and really put some effort into climbing as quick as I could. I lost Seow Kong soon after we started our ascent, and kept pace with an old Japanese chap who was going strong. 

Looking up, all you see is a trail of lights winding up towards the summit. Its almost depressing, but somehow it felt that I was past that point now. I was fired up and feeling strong .. or just temporarily caffeine-fuelled. Everytime I looked up there were still miles of lights ahead. But I really was climbing hard, passing people and pressing forward. Halfway up I stepped off-course to wake a Japanese runner who’d fallen asleep by a small hut. It was so cold he’d have been in danger of hypothermia if he’d stayed too long. Plus he’d gone off the track and I only saw him by chance with my headlamp when I turned round to have a look.

It felt like we climbed forever, and then some. Finally at the top, I was still freezing, fingers stinging from the cold, but chuffed to bits I made it up in good time and looking forward to the downhill stretch to La Fouly. Definitely in good spirits again! Desert King sends a text of encouragement and says he’ll see me in Trient. Something to look forward to!

It’s not long before I realise it’s getting painful to descend and I think the caffeine is wearing off as my spirits and speed start to flag again. I’m alone again, can’t remember what happened to the runners round me, but I feel I’m going steady anyway. I take another caffeine pill as my eyes won’t stay open and I pass  runners on the side of the trail trying to rest. Just. Keep. Moving. Forward.

What I thought was a downhill stretch turned out to be anything but. In the dark and with my fatigue I feel increasingly cheated and frustrated. Where the hell is La Fouly and how come I’m climbing again?? I thought I should’ve been there ages ago. A quick time check shows I’m dangerously close to the checkpoint cut-off and it’s nowhere to be seen. I don’t want it to end like this. Then we’re descending again. Signs to La Fouly emerge as I come out onto a road.  I meet the old Japanese guy and another chap checking their maps on the side of the road and they follow me. We’re all running now and checking our watches. Deja vu. Maybe they extended the cut-off here too. Can’t risk it though. Run faster. 

I make it into La Fouly with 5 minutes to spare. They didn’t extend the cut-off. I had time to grab a bottle of water and left the aid-station to fill up outside. If you’re still in the aid station at the cut-off time your race is over. 

Champex-Lac (124km)
I fall in with a small group of runners and we make our way to Champex. We have 4 hours to cover 14km. We go steady and somehow I lose all but one. Jean-Marc is keeping me entertained and distracted whilst we try to make it to Champex on time. I’m extremely grateful for his company and he lifts my spirits a little as we try to make it through our second night on the trail.

After Praz de Fort it’s a climb to Champex. It helps that dawn is breaking and I find a bit more energy. Our time is a little tight but if we keep pace we should get to Champex with about 20 minutes to spare. Starting the climb to Champex, I’m wondering why there’s a bunch of sheep corralled in what looks like a roller-skating rink. As I run past them and take a closer look, they’re all just part of the rock face. Same with the giant banners I think are hanging from the sky. Cliff face and tree bits. My first hallucinations .. just a bit freaky!

As it gets lighter I’m moving faster and lose Jean-Marc as we’re nearing Champex. It’s a relief to finally get there, especially with the false alarm checkpoint 2km before the aid station. A chap with some music playing and a bib scanner bleeps you in and tells you it’s 2km to go … depressing or what! Finally at Champex, I’m freezing, starving, desperately need the loo and not sure what to do first. I have 30 minutes before the cut-off. WTFS!

I sort myself out, drink more coke and opt for a plate of pasta with meat sauce and cheese. I’ve never had pasta taste so good! The warmth and sustenance was uplifting and I’m ready to go again. I have no idea what lies ahead now. The course is changed and we had another update on cut-off times, pushing the final cut-off in Chamonix to 2100h .. which means we have a grand total of 45h 30 mins to complete this.

There is a huge descent to Martigny, nearly 2 hours of steep downhill on singletrack. I don’t know what to expect and how far it will be so all I can do is run. My map is now useless as the course is different from here on in. The pasta and coke from champex have given me a new surge and I speed up as much as I can, passing people along the way. It feels like I’m running way too fast with 50+km to go, but I’m feeling good, so what the hell. I’m running downhill like I was chasing the cut-off at Arnuva and getting high on it. It felt so good to fly past people, so many of whom were in pain from the descent. I finally got to some kind of checkpoint that I hoped was Trient .. no such luck! Another 12km to Trient. Quick water refill and a cup of coke for a boost, and I’m off. I’ve got some momentum again and 12km before moral support awaits at Trient.
The Martigny vineyards. We started down by the river, having descended from the other side.
Then I see Martigny rise up in front of me. Oh crap. The sun is out now and it looks like an endless climb in blazing heat.  Luckily, I’m feeling good. I take my cue from everyone else around and peel off my waterproof layers. This is going to be hot. I channel Grand Col Ferret and get going. The faster I go, the faster I’ll get to the top, right? It’s all on road with switchbacks through the vineyards now as we make our way up to Martigny. I’m still passing people and feeling great. Mind over matter, here we go. Somewhere along the way I’m followed up a climb by a Japanese TV cameraman. I tell him I’m not Japanese (I’ve been mistaken for Japanese all along the way). He knows. He’s excited for me and asks lots of questions before letting me go on alone.
Up and over, the trail evens out and it’s rolling terrain for a bit. Where’s this extra altitude then? Should be Bovine and more. Somehow I doubt my text is wrong. Everything with this race so far points to taking the harder route if given the choice. My suspicions are confirmed when we finally roll out of Martigny. The road just goes up. Very up. And steeply so. Nothing for it but to keep moving forward. How much longer can 12km take me? 

Something’s changed for me. I think finally knowing the end is within reach, the weather looking great and being warm at last just made all the difference. We had to climb to the top of Col Forclaz, one of the trail signs I passed said 2h 40mins to the summit. I think that’s an estimate based on a steady hike, but there was no way I wanted to climb for that long, so I pushed hard. I passed loads of runners on the ascent to Col Forclaz, and that fuelled me to push even harder. The trail just seemed to go up forever, and after an absolute age of climbing, I could finally see small groups of supporters at the top, shouting and cheering. I was making good time too! One of the guys I passed near the top said Trient was an hour  downhill from the top, but I could make it in 30 minutes if I ran. And I did. In 20mins. 
Coming into Trient
Coke break and 37 hours on the go so far.
Being told I have 25km left
I was pumped and stoked and grinning like a cheshire cat coming into Trient. Tickled to see Desert King and delighted when he confirmed that I was making good time and taking back places. A quick check to see how far I had to go .. 25km left. More than I hoped but definitely doable. I’d gotten there in 37 hours .. and wondered if sub-40 was still possible. Then Desert King says it took Lizzy Hawker nearly 5 hours from Trient to Chamonix. Okay, maybe 42 hours would be more realistic. Anyway, the end was in sight. Now to see if I had anything left. I hadn’t eaten much apart from a few Solids tablets and coke at every checkpoint. Didn’t feel like it, but I forced down some pasta soup at Trient before heading out again.
Getting rid of stones in my shoes .. next time use gaiters!
Catogne – Vallorcine – Argentiere – Chamonix
The last stretch is a bit of a blur. I remember just trying to go as hard as I could, fast hiking any uphills and running all flats and descents. Even the steep ones. I knocked back some coke at each checkpoint and tried to get some food in at Vallorcine. I remember thinking I’m starting to run on empty now, but it was increasingly hard to keep anything down apart from a few Solids. And I didn’t want to stop to eat.

The last bit to Chamonix still took me the better part of 6 hours, but it was quick for me. The fast, flat finish that was promised turned out to be part of the Petit Balcon Sud I’d run several times in the week before during training. Not exactly flat. Or particularly fast. The trail was quite technical, you had to watch where you put your feet and it always went up just when you thought you were in for a break. Still, it was good knowing where I was and the fact that I’d run it in training was an added bonus. Somwhere along the way I realised sub-43h was within reach .. obviously I’d had to re-adjust my goals along the way!

The relief at seeing Chamonix town and knowing I had less than 1km to go was amazing. And it was still daylight! I’d already been running like a crazy person, this felt like the last 10km of GNW when everything seemed to kick in and pain was no longer an option. I ran as hard as I could and get chased by the Japanese cameraman as I came into the town. He’s absolutely delighted for me and runs with me for a bit, still filming as he goes.

Desert King’s photo composition skills need a bit more work .. 😉
I see Desert King as I reach the Sports Centre. He’s cheering and taking photos at the same time. I have the biggest grin on my face ever. It’s about 500m to the finish and I’ve already started kicking. Still passing runners on the way and I’ve never felt so good. I’m buoyed by all the cheers from spectators lining the streets. Past the river, through the town, I’m sprinting now, hi-fiving all the kids standing on the sides with their hands outstretched.  
42 hours, 53 minutes and 10 seconds. I’ve done it. I had serious doubts I would for over half the course, and this has to be the hardest event I’ve ever done. I’ve had to dig so deep and be so honest with myself, it really stripped everything down to the bare bones. 

My elation as I cross the finish line is amazing. I feel like I’ve been tested to my absolute limits, and I’m completely knackered … but happy. The best feeling ever. I did it. I DID IT!!!!!! 
My chocolate medal from the cake shop … yum!
Would I do it again?
Apart from forgetting my compression socks for the plane ride home the next day (resulting in swollen feet!), my recovery was pretty quick and I’ve had no real aches or soreness at all. No blisters or abrasions either despite having wet feet for the better part of 17 hours. I’ve dived straight back into a whirlwind of work and training since I got back from Chamonix over two weeks ago, but the elation is still there even though I haven’t had much time to think about it since I got back. I grin and have a giggle to myself when I remember .. I’m absolutely tickled.

Thanks to coach Pete Roper for my training program .. it made a huge difference and my physical fitness was never in question throughout the race. And to Charles and Co at Hammer Nutrition for their continued support – best sports nutrition and supplements by far! Big hugs to all those who sent messages of support, happy thoughts and prayers for strength and safety. I really did feel the love when I needed it the most. Huge thanks to Desert King for being there to witness my fear, check my splits and remind me that pain is temporary.

And most of all, I give thanks and remember that “With God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26) and “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

Would I do it again? Not likely. UTMB was an epic experience, and it will be a long time before I choose to put myself through something so brutal again. I’m satisfied with being able to tick it off my list. There are far too many interesting events for me to invest so much of myself in this one again. I loved Chamonix though, so I’d go as a spectator … or maybe the CCC .. or the TDS … 😉 
Post-race dinner .. a huge wedge of melted raclette

There’s a bunch of videos here that will give you an idea of what it was like out there. 
Race reports from Hal Koerner, Krissy Moehl, Scott Jaime, Geoff Roes, Scott Jurek and Nick Clark.

  • No categories

2010 Great North Walk 100s (GNW) – 100 mile event report

Feeding the mosquitoes at the race start!
I’ve finally gotten round to writing my account of the GNW100s 2010. And it’s only a couple of months late! Thanks to everyone who’s asked and waited so patiently, I hope this will inspire you to sign up for what’s touted as “The toughest trail race in Australia”. GNW home page.
Sorry about how long it is, but there’s no quick way to report on a 35 hour event!

Race Entry
Signing up was a challenge in itself. Registrations opened at 6am (Australia time) a couple of months out from the event. Being ‘kiasu’ organized, I drafted my email application, set my alarm for 3.45am (Singapore time), and waited. At 4.01am, I pressed ‘send’. Then, worried I’d sent it too early, I pressed ‘send’ again at 4.05am and hoped for the best. Okay, that was ‘kiasu’*.
*kiasu means ‘afraid to lose out’. Its actual usage implies a meaning more like “dog in a manger“. Examples of kiasu behaviour includes accumulating too much food on one’s plate during a buffet lunch in case there is no more later, or emailing a race application twice in case the first one didn’t go through.

A lot was riding on my entry approval. The aim was to get enough points to enter the 2011 Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc (UTMB).  Completing the GNW within the cut-off times would put 4 points towards my cause. I’d already earned 2 points in the 2009 Endurancelife Classic Quarter and the GNW was the only suitable race left within the time frame I had.
It turns out I was right to be so kiasu about my entry … the 105 slots available were quickly filled and a waiting list formed within hours of registration opening!
The GNW signage at Teralba train station.

Race Prep
My room at Pippis.
I arrived in Sydney a couple of days out from the race and travelled to Teralba by train. I stayed at Pippi’s at the Point. It’s a few minutes drive from the race start and right by Lake Macquarie.

Dropbags at the ready
The logistics of doing a 100 mile event overseas without a support crew is an ultramarathon undertaking in itself, and I had list upon list of calorie calculations, packing checklists and travel itineraries to busy myself with. There are 6 checkpoints along the race route, and you are allowed to leave dropbags with extra supplies at each one. I bought small, insulated cool bags from a local store and used them as dropbags. I ran through the event in my head, working out what I thought I’d need at each stop, adding a little extra (kiasu again!) and making sure I fulfilled the mandatory requirements for items such as hi-vis vests and headlamps.

Race Day
Got a lift to the race start at Teralba with Luke and his family. He was doing the 100km event and stayed at Pippi’s the night before. Such lovely people, very friendly and helpful beyond words.  Luke was familiar with the course up to the 100km mark, having run it during training. Unfortunately I’d never seen the course and his detailed description was lost on me. The sentiment was very much appreciated though, Luke!
Dropbag boxes for the checkpoints
Registration was at Tulkaba Park, and that morning there were mosquitoes everywhere! The pre-race briefing conducted was conducted by Dave Byrnes, the race director. 

5am registration .. yawn!
He very kindly gave a mention to the handful of overseas competitors – a couple of guys from the Philippines, an American, and myself. The hospitality of the local runners was uplifting, and many came to say hello and to wish me luck. Everyone seemed to know everyone else and the GNW100s almost feels like you’re intruding on a family party, but one where you’re quickly made welcome.
Nearly crashing into the photographer … trying to turn on the Garmin and not looking up!
Then, without any fanfare, we were off. I didn’t actually hear the official start, and just started running when everyone else did. The pointy end of the field took off whilst I just tried to start off steady. Whilst trying to make sure I started my GPS I nearly collided with the photographer at the start. This was going to be a long day!
The first checkpoint was at 18 miles (28.6km), and it was hilly from the start. This first section took us through primeval rainforest, which was awe-inspiring and daunting at the same time. It felt like I was on the set of Jurassic Park … minus the dinosaurs. There were definitely sections that weren’t ‘runnable’ … even if you were Kilian Jornet!
The route wasn’t very clear and I relied on the runners around me, including Luke, to take the lead. We had to keep a lookout for the occasional fluorescent orange paint spot that indicated we were on the right track. I’d never done anything like this before, and most of the time it barely looked like there was a trail there at all!
We crossed a creek at about 15km where I very cleverly managed to lose my footing, and do a slippery slope slide down the side of the rock face straight into the creek! I thought I was going to break something given the height and speed from which I fell, but luckily nothing more than a few grazes, wet feet and covered in creek gunk. One of the runners helped me out and we were on our way again. My wet feet would give me some serious blisters later, but that couldn’t be helped. A quick prayer of thanks that my race wasn’t over so early on, and I squelched off again. 
Just after the first waterstop.
Still smiling at 17km .. early days yet!
At 17kms I took advantage of the waterstop at the petrol kiosk to refill my pack and got a morale boost from the supporters waiting for their runners to come by. As I got closer to CP1, I thought it odd that I was feeling unusually sleepy, since it was daylight and I’d not been running for long. Then I remembered. I’d taken an anti-histamine the night before to help me get to sleep … it hadn’t worked last night because it was only taking effect now! Lesson learnt. On the bright side, at least my mozzie bites from this morning weren’t itching! Popped 50mg of caffeine to wake myself up and kept going.
Coming into CP1 was a welcome pit stop. Luke’s dad and brother were part of his support crew and had already sent him on his way. They very kindly helped sluice off all the creek gunk I’d collected from my fall and made sure I had everything I needed for the next section. I kept fuelled on a concentrated mixture of Perpetuem, taking a swig from my flask every 30 minutes or so, and had some Clif Bloks and Powergels with me as well.  
Into CP1 .. creek gunk all over!
Out of CP1 .. clean for now!

CP1: 28.6km in 4:09h, and 9 minutes spent getting sorted!
15 miles (23.9km) to CP2. The weather so far was hot and humid, perfect for me, having come from the heat and humidity of Singapore, but I could see some of the other runners were struggling with the heat, particularly on the exposed sections of the course. I ran this leg alone for the most part, passing a few people and being passed by others in return.
Congewai Road behind me

The open stretch of Congewai Road seems never-ending in the heat, and finally getting to CP2 is like finding an oasis in the desert. The event crew and runner support crews were all so friendly and helpful, doing as much as they can to make sure every runner is well looked after.  I took my time to regroup, refill and reconsider. I’d started optimistically, thinking I might be able to produce a sub-30hr time. But with the first 40kms being pretty much uphill, I had to rethink my goals. There were far worse hills to come, none of which I’d seen before, and some sections so far had been slow-going due to difficult terrain. I’d been told to expect more of the same. At CP2, I could see runners seeking refuge from the heat and trying to regroup before heading out again. There were 15 DNFs at CP2. Due to the heat, I’d put Perpetuem powder in a sports bottle at each CP. I’d mix it with water when I got into each CP, and refill my gel flask from there. So far, so good.
We also had to have our night visibility equipment before we left CP2, and pass a mandatory equipment check before departing.
CP2: 23.9km in 3:12h, and 16 minutes spent getting my act together!
Coming out of CP2 it’s an uphill drag and a couple more peaks thrown in before descending into The Basin. I was running on my own for a bit, and had to really concentrate to make sure I was on the right path. The course maps weren’t much use to me, but the detailed instructions were extremely helpful. Having a GPS (Garmin Foretrex 301 – thanks, Kah Shin!) helped as I knew exactly when to look out for the next route marker. I ran with a chap named Ridler for a bit. He was using trekking poles to help him along and I wondered if I should have brought some too. I’d borrowed a pair to bring, but decided that my lack of practice with them would only serve to hinder me and so left them behind. I ran on after that and joined up with Geoff and Graham, who were to be my running companions for the majority of the course. We’d agreed to run together as it got dark for companionship and to make sure we didn’t go too far off course.
It got dark not long after we entered The Basin, and it was singletrack in more foresty conditions for the most part. It seemed to take forever to get to CP3, despite the fact that we were going downhill. The fading light made us more cautious and a couple of freshly fallen trees made our journey just a little more complicated.
The lights of CP3 were a relief indeed, and we all sat down to hot soup, sausages and other welcome comforts. I’d developed some blisters at this point from my wet shoes and socks, and took them off to assess the damage. I’d also managed to pick up some leeches along the way, and they were wriggling away on my shoes and socks. All of us had our leeches dispatched by a cheery race steward brandishing salt and a pair of scissors. Apparently if salt doesn’t kill them, cutting them in half does! I didn’t have any spare socks till CP4 so there wasn’t much I could do about my blisters apart from grin and bear it!
I’d also decided not to take any more Perpetuem and take on some solid food instead. I’d never trained with solid food but I was well and truly sick of the sweet taste and craved something salty and solid. I was worried  about the effect that solid food would have on me as I’d been coping fine so far on my planned fuels. The sausage sandwich I had at CP3 was truly the best I’ve ever tasted, though! I had a bag of ready salted crisps and some vacuum packed bak kwa (barbecued pork) in my CP3 dropbag too …  they tasted heavenly!
Now it was properly dark and we all put on our hi-vis vests and headlamps for the next section. Up until now I’d been texting my sister in Singapore each time I got to a CP so she could update my status on Facebook. However, there was no mobile signal in The Basin. The texts I’d been receiving from friends and family so far were a great motivator, though!
CP3: 29.1km in 5:55h, 28 minutes for leech removal and hot soup refills.
Graham in front of me.  Steep or what!
The path goes down off the left of the pic.
I reluctantly left CP3 with Geoff and Graham. The bright fireflies in the forest were a brief distraction, but then we were back to the grim reality of navigating the steep uphill section out of The Basin in the dark.
I’m grateful to Geoff and Graham for their company .. I’d have fared a lot worse if I’d been running alone towards CP4, and definitely would’ve lost my way. By this time we’d already covered 80kms, and CP4 also doubled as the 100km finish. It was just after midnight when we got into CP4, and this was now the farthest I’d ever run – 103.7km. I was feeling tired, grumpy and not keen to carry on at all. My blisters had now become all consuming points of pain on my feet and I felt like I’d had enough. I was envious of the 100km finishers, they were done for the day. 72kms left to go! I had to rally my thoughts and focus on finishing .. the UTMB beckoned!
The crew at CP4 were truly amazing, making sure we had everything we needed without even having to get up! Geoff’s support crew (the lovely Jocie and Zoe) even helped tape my blisters for me. Leech removal, followed by another fabulous sausage sandwich, crisps, coke and salted nuts, all of which boosted my morale a little more. Armed with a fresh pair of socks, I was finally ready to head out again. We had at least 5 hours of darkness left before the sun would start to come out.
CP4: 22.1km in 3:56h, and 40 minutes of recuperation!
It was definitely a hard slog out of CP4, and we were going uphill for the next 15kms or so. On the bright side, I was back in mobile reception once we got to the top, and the text messages that came flooding in once I had a signal were very gratefully received.
I was taking caffeine every 90 minutes or so to keep myself awake, and popped a couple of salted plums for the same effect. I’d ditched the Perpetuem again and filled a spare Ziploc bag with salted nuts and dried fruit from CP4. I also had chafing issues for the first time, and had to cut the lining out of my shorts to reduce the friction.
CP5 was at the top of another hill (no surprise there!), and it was daylight by the time we got there. It was energizing to be running in daylight again, but by this time my feet were so sore I was desperate to get my blisters seen to. Graham and Geoff had gone on ahead whilst I lagged behind feeling a little sorry for myself. I was well and truly fed up with running, walking and being tired and in pain. I got into CP5 and gratefully sat down in the nearest chair.
Someone got me some lovely cold coke, and Ross, the CP medic very kindly came and took a look at my feet. He dispatched a few leeches that’d come along for the ride, and lanced the main blister on the ball of my left foot, which was causing the most pain. Geoff had blister troubles of his own and was being tended to by his support crew. Jocie helped me duct tape my feet before I put my shoes and socks back on, and my feet felt a little less sore for that. Meanwhile, Graham looked fresh and ready to go after some refreshment. However, he very kindly waited till we were ready too.
CP5: 28.2km in 5:50h, and 30 minutes spent tending my sore feet.  
The next bit was meant to be the ‘easiest’ and shortest section, but I certainly don’t agree with that! At first I tried keeping pace with Graham, but he’d definitely got his second wind and went storming ahead. I lost Geoff behind me as he was making slower progress due to how sore his feet were. Alone again, I really tried to rally myself and get some sort of a pace going, but it really was difficult. I’d underestimated how hard this event was going to be and I was now learning all my lessons the hard way. I’d completely lost my appetite by now and had to force myself to have a Clif Blok or some nuts every so often.
This section was at my lowest point. Everything hurt, I was running alone and trying not to get lost, and I was just so tired! All I wanted to do was stop. I’d also been passed by Geoff, a lady called Susannah, and a chap named Symon. I wasn’t exactly having a great time. Then I got a text that said “Pain is temporary, quitting is forever.” Those words motivated me more than I thought possible. Since I was in pain anyway, what difference did it make if I walked or ran? At least if I ran I’d get to end a little quicker! So that was it. I picked up the pace and ran. Not fast by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not pain-free, but at least I’d stopped feeling sorry for myself and got back to my original aim of completing my first 100 miler. I passed Geoff again just before CP6, and got there a few minutes before he did. Getting to CP6 felt encouraging .. just over 25kms to the finish .. how much harder could that be?
CP6: 17.8km in 3:16h, and 28 minutes spent re-taping my feet and scoffing as many crisps as possible.

Coming into CP6
Super helpful CP crew!
Only 25km to go … how much worse can it get!
Clean top and visor, trying to text home before the last leg.
Whilst at CP6, Geoff told me that the last section was not to be taken lightly, and that it was quite exposed for the most part and hilly to boot. Taking his advice, I slathered on the sunscreen and made sure my hydration pack was topped up. I was glad I had a fresh top to change into, but should have put it at an earlier checkpoint! 
I left CP6 together with Geoff, at the same time as Horrie, an ultramarathon veteran, and his pacer Keith. I stayed with them for a minute and then decided to run on ahead. My feet had been freshly taped and felt a little tight, and I hoped running a little harder would loosen up the tape.
My renewed enthusiasm lasted less than 30 minutes and I was slowed by the steep climbs and descents that had been characteristic of the course thus far. I’d even picked up a large stick to use as a trekking pole .. it certainly helped on the climbs and I now wished I’d brought some with me.

The scenery thus far had been beautiful and breathtaking, but the terrain had also caused me more pain than I’d ever experienced in a race before!

There were a few wet crossings, and the tape on my feet felt like it had started to come apart. My feet felt like mincemeat, and by the time I got to the water-stop at 16km in, I’d slowed to a resigned walk. This was officially 100.4 miles (160.64km), and I’d let out a small yell of celebration at the passing of this milestone. Nonetheless, there was still just over 9 miles (15km) to go before the finish.  
I met a couple of runners (Kevin and Andrew?) at the unmanned water-stop, and Geoff, Horrie and Keith had also caught me up by then. I was grateful for the company and kept pace with them for the next 5km till we went up Mt. Wondabyne. Found out Keith is a fellow Singaporean now resident in Sydney, and gave him my last piece of bak kwa .. it’s hard to get that stuff anywhere outside of Singapore! It felt like really slow going to the top of Mt Wondabyne and I really wasn’t sure if I was going to make the 36-hour cut-off time. We were all tired and in pain (except Keith, who seemed to have more energy than a warren of Energiser bunnies), and I remember thinking that this had to be hardest 25km I’d ever done.
Starting the descent from Mt Wondabyne, there was a sign that read ‘Patonga 10km’. That was it. I though about all the 10km races I’d run and surely it wouldn’t take me more than 90 minutes to get through this last 10k? So I ran. I really ran as hard as I could. I’d also ran past Kevin and Andrew who were further along, and I remember yelling, “Pain is temporary, sub-35 is forever!”. This certainly felt like a second wind.
My pain didn’t miraculously disappear, but the sudden urgency I felt to finish this within 35 hours somehow managed to channel it to fuel my motivation to push hard. I’d had to reassess my goals all along the way. My initial plans for a sub-30 finish had gone up in smoke ages ago. Then it was sub-31, sub-32 and sub-33. Now I was aiming for a sub-35 and desperate to achieve at least that! I literally ran my heart out. I pushed so hard and got worried a couple of times when I thought I’d lost the trail. Trying to run fast and navigate at the same time isn’t easy!
Nearly there!
By the time I could see the beach, I was running like a crazy person. I was hurtling down the side of the cliff towards the beach, looking at my watch and trying not to break my neck at the same time. I remember saying a quick prayer for safety .. the last thing I wanted to do was fall and break something with 1km to go! 
I was really cutting it fine for a sub-35, and I had to dig so deep for the last few kms. When I finally reached the beach, I was momentarily confused about which way to go. I could see everyone in the distance waiting by the wharf, and the bell was ringing to signal a runner coming in. I picked the harder route along soft sand (my experience with the race so far indicated that would be the logical choice) and ran like my pants were on fire. My GPS timer was reading 34h 55min, but I couldn’t really be sure that was accurate, as I’d lost some distance along the course due to a poor signal.
It really was the best feeling running along Patonga Beach, to the cheers of the small crowd of spectators. Reaching the finishing post at Patonga Wharf, giving it the traditional kiss, and receiving my finisher’s medal felt amazing..
Did it!

FINISH / CP7: 25.4km in 6:10h
Official finish time: 175.3km in 34h 59 mins. It’s true .. sub-35 IS forever!
23rd place overall
There were 29 DNFs in the 100 mile event, and 33 runners finished it.

Even post-race, the event crew continue to make sure the runners are comfortable and looked after. There were freshly grilled bacon and egg sandwiches, endless coke and jelly babies, as well as mattresses on the verandah floor if you needed to crash out.
Geoff and me at the end .. finished at last!
What would I do different next time? (I’m definitely going to do this one again!) Socks and duct tape in each drop bag, not just at 100km. Clean clothes at halfway rather than 150km (obviously I didn’t think this one through!). Train with more real food – that’ll also reduce my pack weight. Sachets of salt for the leeches, a smaller mapcase, and shorts that don’t chafe after 125km …. oh, and a LOT more hill training! I taped my neck with zinc oxide tape in anticipation of chafing from my pack .. great idea till I had to remove it! I don’t know if there’s a better substitute .. vaseline and Body Glide don’t really work for me and tend to get a bit messy. Maybe kinesiotape? Carrying a small roll of tape always helps .. you never know what adjustments or last minute repairs are needed.  
I drank about 16 litres of water with Nuun electrolyte tablets along the way, exactly as I’d planned and I was well hydrated throughout the course. I also had about 300mg caffeine throughout the night – more than I’ve ever had, but with no detrimental effects.  I took Hammer Nutrition Anti-Fatigue Capsules throughout the entire event, one dose each hour. Speaking of which, I think they worked very well .. my fatigue was more from a general weariness and sleep deprivation rather than lactic acid buildup.
Souvenir blisters!
I didn’t eat as much as I thought I would, and probably consumed about 6000 calories in 35 hours. That left me about 10000 calories in deficit, which I happily rectified the following week! Perpetuem was handy for the first 60km or so, but a chore to mix and difficult to drink in hot weather. Clif Bloks and Powergels were a trusted staple, and sachets of peanut butter and bak kwa also helped boost my calorie intake.  Next time I’d add more crisps, salted nuts and dried fruit to my rations.   
To get a feel for the race, take a look at the rest of the photos here: GNW 2010 pics
The Terrigal Trotters website on the GNW is very informative and RD Dave Byrnes is extremely helpful. All the event crew, volunteers and support crew deserve a huge round of applause for their assistance and patience. I’ve never been at a race where I’ve felt so well looked after! And my grateful thanks to friends and family for their texts, calls and Facebook comments .. very much appreciated! I’d keep my mobile in a more accessible place next time as well .. there are moments I wish I’d had pictures of, but it was just too much hassle to get my phone out!

Finally, huge thanks to SDPE International for the very generous sponsorship of Under Armour kit (super comfy and not bad looking either!) and fuelling supplies from the US, and to Winstech Engineering for their generous support too!

This event was a real test of my physical and mental ability to push myself to the limit and beyond. I’ve learnt so much about myself, and it’s a journey I recommend to anyone. Your mental strength plays a huge part in an ultra, more so than I thought possible. It’s important to do some training alone for the psychological aspect, and to have an arsenal of motivating strategies to call on when you need a boost. I hope this inspires some of the ultra-runners in Singapore to sign up .. the GNW 100s is an amazing experience. Now, onward to UTMB!