As far as my life goes, this week scored rather high on the “eventfulness” scale. Wednesday was my last day of work at my old employer. The day itself was not too different from most of my other days at work – a mad scramble to get things done before a deadline, except that this deadline was a little harder than all the others. I finally managed to finish the last bit of handing over at around mid-day, and then proceeded to spend the whole afternoon trying to frantically complete my departure checklist – a lengthy list of tasks that ideally are meant to be completed over the course of two days or so.
I finally got to the end of my to-do list, only for one of the managers to come and let me know that I was late for my own farewell gathering in the club room. My sneaky colleagues had foiled my attempt to have a ninja exit. Ever since my resignation, I’d tried my best to keep my actual exit date on the down low, and had put in on a Wednesday too, partly in the hope that most people would be out at clients. It was not to be, and I got a send-off speech from one of my managers, a tie and a bottle of wine, and got to see most of the department one last time before I handed in my pass.
On retrospect, I’m glad it happened that way after all – I sure won’t miss the pressure and hours of the job, but I had the chance to work with a mostly fine, talented and down-to-earth bunch. When all the bad memories have been repressed, and the pain and hardships forgotten, it’s all these awesome people who were there with me along the way that I will remember most from my time with the firm.
I did not have a chance to savour and unwind in the freedom of temporary unemployment, because there were bags to pack. The next morning, it was off to the airport for a flight to Sydney, to meet up with the rest of my family and celebrate the lunar new year.
Heading east meant it was also a good opportunity to do a bit of a recce of part of the TNF100 route. I was keen to have a look at the tail end of the race, given I will be running possibly the last third of it in the dark come May. My dad met us at the airport, and we drove another 1.5hrs up to Katoomba where we bedded down for the night.
At the crack of dawn, I crept out of bed and went about getting my gear together and having my pre-run brekkie. I almost made it out the door when, to my chagrin, I heard a sweet little voice go “where are you going, daddy?”. Not wanting to wake J up this early, I was thus set me back another 15 minutes as I then had to get E his breakfast before bundling him in to the car. My dad and E then kindly dropped me off at the old Queen Victoria Hospital (better known to TNF100 folk as checkpoint 5), and I was off for my little sampler of TNF100 terrain.
The 22km Leg 6 can pretty much be summarised as a big 600m or so of pure descent over the first 8 or so km, followed by a vicious 700m of net positive gain (1,100m gross thanks to some rather sharp descents thrown in along the way) over the remaining 14. The race finishes with a 200m climb consisting of over 900 stairs with not much flat mixed in. Sounds bad? Well, in reality, it’s worse.
The final leg starts off innocently enough – broad fire-road which descends gradually in some parts and steeply in others, winding down the steep and sometimes sheer mountainside. For the first hour or so, the sky was covered in heavy cloud, which helped keep the sun at bay and the temperatures down. The trail was quite well formed, with almost no rutting, and just the odd large stone here and there to watch out for.
There were some pretty spectacular views along the way, and I did lose a fair bit of time fiddling with my new GoPro camera. I was keen to photograph some of the views, given I was likely never to come by this way in daylight ever again.
About 5 or so km in, the trail descended into thicker forest and took a hard right into Sublime Point Track. A fluttering piece of pink tape from last year’s event let me know that I was on the right track, and on I went, continuing to enjoy the seemingly endless descent.
Of course, eventually I got to the bottom, and after splashing through Jackson’s Creek crossing, I braced myself for the onslaught that was to come.
The first climb was an excellent sampler of what lay ahead – a 150m ascent over roughly 1km of track (that’s 15% grade). I grabbed my poles, grateful for the easy access granted by the salomon 4d pole-holder system, and power-hiked up the hill. There was a brief respite after that climb in the form of a 5 minute descent, but right after that was another nasty 10% grade climb that went for about a km or so.
After cresting the second climb, I savoured the next 1km, 120m descent, which treated me to a view in the distance of the Three Sisters – three gigantic pillars of rock which serve as one of the main tourist attractions for the area. From where I was, they looked tiny, a sobering indication of the distance I still had to travel. At the same time, as I continued to descend, I was cruelly reminded that every step down meant another step up later on. I did my best to shut the negativity out, and eventually got to Leura Falls Creek, which signalled the start of some serious elevation gain.
Over the next 3km, the trail climbed almost incessantly, gaining a good 330m, or roughly an 11% grade. Coming up from the valley floor, I was surrounded by mountains and hiking amongst the thick forest foliage. This meant that I was pretty much sheltered from any breeze, and by now the sun had made its way above the mountain tops and had started peeking through the clouds. Sweat began to pour as I made my way up, and my heart rate rose to the 70-80% zone although I was merely hiking at around 13min/km. My only consolation was that, on race day, it would be dark, and it would be freezing temperatures rather than blazing heat that I would have to deal with when I next came by this neck of the woods.
The trail continued like this for a bit, essentially consisting of steeply ascending fire road, levelling out briefly now and then but providing little respite for my pounding heart. There were some decent views along the way, excellent excuses for a brief pause and a much needed rest. I met a couple of other runners going in the opposite direction. Both were TNF veterans, and one of them kindly helped point me in the right direction when I got into a pickle.
At around the 16.5km mark, the clear cut fire road broke into a grass clearing and all but vanished into a faint pair of side-by-side vehicle tracks. Shortly after this, the route re-entered the bush, this time in the form of a very rough and clearly dissused single track. The state of the trail was quite poor – overgrown and badly eroded in some parts. Memories of my last attempt at an overgrown track at Mt Donna Buang came flooding back, and I had began to second guess myself as to whether I was indeed on the track. Thankfully, the course description on the TNF100 website was sufficiently detailed, and each time I was about to give up and turn back, I came across an obvious landmark that was detailed in the course notes. A stream crossing, a concrete pipe and finally a steep set of stairs, and I was on to Federal Pass – a rocky but clearly well-trodden piece of singletrack.
A relatively long (1km or so) gentle descent along the first part of federal pass gave my now rather taxed cardio vascular system a bit of relief. After that, the trail began to climb gently back up through Leura Forest and towards the cliffs below Leura and Katoomba. The gradient was negligible compared to the nasty climbs out of Jacksons and Leura Falls creeks, and were runnable for the most part. As I neared Katoomba, I began to experience tourist traffic – light and sparse initially, but eventually growing to the point where I got stuck in a traffic jam of chinese tourists who had clearly just arrived by the busload from the scenic railway.
So frustrated was I by the thronging mass that I missed the turnoff and ended up at the lower railway station itself. A quick 100m back along the trail, and I was facing the final challenge the TNF100 course in its arsenal – the dreaded Furber Steps.
The Furber steps are a challenge in themselves. Other than two or three flat walkways maybe ten metres in length each, the staircase essentially ascends 200m over 900+ stairs, a good portion of which have no handrails, are higher than they are wide, and are worn to the point that they are sloping downwards. There’s no other way to describe it – it was just brutal. I struggled up the steps, pretty much ignoring the views and rather pretty waterfalls along the way, just focusing on placing each foot on the next step and hauling myself up. I was relatively fresh, having only covered 22 km or so, but it was definitely hard work. I vaguely remember quipping in between heavy breaths to a pair of american tourists along the way, “Definitely take the train back up”.
I don’t know what kind of sick individual puts a stair climb like that at the end of a 100km race. With the average runner having their legs reduced to jelly by this point, the possibility of falling backwards down a rather steep and long flight of steps isn’t far fetched at all, particularly in the sections where handrails are absent.
It took 15 long minutes to clear the 500m long, 200m vertical (40%!!) ascent, and boy was I glad for the token 50m relatively flat boardwalk to jog along to the finish at Scenic World. The recce was quite an eye opener. 4:07 for just over 22km, and that was on fresh legs. Vital information for strategising on race day, and a grim reminder that this race is anything but a walk in the park!
The rest of the trip has been far more restful. We drove back down to Sydney and met up with my brother and his family. We took the opportunity to dump our kids with our parents, and the four of us went out on a double movie date to watch Kingsman: The Secret Service. If you like spy movies and Colin Firth, definitely watch this one. I totally loved it, and it was a breath of fresh air. James Bond is getting a bit stale.
As I type this, we’ve just got back from a Chinese new year reunion dinner – the first one we’ve had with my parents in over 7 years. My brother’s in-laws were there too, and it was a very lovely time of fellowship and catching up.
The past three days have felt like a week. It’s midnight now in the wee hours of Sunday and I’d best get some shut-eye. We fly back to Melbourne in the afternoon, and tomorrow I will officially become a public servant. This goes to show – a lot can happen in just four days!
- Monday: Stair climbing – 35 stories x 2.5, walk up, run down.
- Tuesday: Easy runs, 2x 3km (part 1, part 2)
- Wednesday / Thursday: Rest
- Friday: TNF100 leg 6 recce: 22km
- Saturday/Sunday: Rest (right foot sore again!)