Racers take to the mountains

By Sam Gibbs 19 May 2010
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In Australia’s stunning Blue Mountains, one inclusive race combines 21-year-olds with 60-somethings.
IT WAS IN THE GLOW of a saturated Blue Mountains dawn that the
condemned gathered in the York Fairmont car park for the North Face 100, a
gruelling 100 km ultramarathon, on May 16. A bitter wind nipped at the rippled
calves of 395 runners, biting through Skins and soft shells to the very heart of
the nervous mob. Wives and husbands fussed, partners supplied emergency
Vaseline, and support crews double-checked compulsory space blankets,
head-torches, energy bars and blister kits.

With more than double the
entrants of last year’s inaugural TNF 100, it was no exaggeration to say that
most of the participants had no idea what they were in for. From 21-year-olds to
60-somethings, previous experience ranged from seasoned ultramarathon runners
and iron-women to half-marathoners and recreational runners. The hot topic
pre-race however, was one particular pair of stumps. “Have you seen DK’s legs?”
people whispered in reverent tones.

Ultramarathon legend Dean Karnazes
had flown in from the US the day before to host TNF 100 after recently finishing
a 324 km event. Signing books and having photos with fans at the starting line,
many were warmed by his genuine friendliness, despite being intimidated by his
pins. “His book was the reason I even considered doing this,” one Sydney runner
said. “But his calves could poke your eye out”.

SOON ENOUGH DK’S CHISELLED pistons were lost in
a flurry of thighs and technical shoes as the pack put Leura’s streets behind
them, winding along the Prince Henry Cliff and Federal Pass tracks to Echo Point
and the Golden Stairs. From the first few kilometres runners were rewarded with
spectacular Blue Mountains vistas, though many quickly learned to keep their
eyes on their feet; the first ankle injury disappointing one runner at the 10 km

Gorgeous but challenging single track was the order of the day for
participants, as they battled 4500 m of unforgiving ascent. The second leg’s
Tarros Ladders, specially built for the event, proved a small hold-up following
one racer freezing mid-ladder, but otherwise all trails were exceptionally easy
to identify and follow, thanks to the ever impressive and tireless efforts of
the AROC team.

Checkpoint three, at the 54 km mark in the Megalong
Valley, was the interchange point for runners undertaking the 50:50 relay.
Thirty-one relay pairs signed up this year, and many were running half the event
with a partner or friend to achieve a spectacular marathon-length distance on
the infamous TNF route.

As some fresh legs departed from the third
checkpoint, while other not-so-fresh legs continued on for their 55th kilometre,
there were still smiles all round, and even a sing-a-long to The Proclaimers’ 
‘I Would Walk 500 Miles’. With 45 km to go, runs soon became shuffles, shuffles
became limps and limps became crawls. Runners donned extra layers, covered their
frosty ears and adjusted head-torches to face a blustering night and the final

Jetlagged Dean Karnazes took a little stumble when he fell asleep
mid-run, but still finished in under 15 hours. Later he said that although TNF
100 was one of his slowest runs, it was the toughest 100 km event he had ever
faced, as well as the most enjoyable. “Grander than the mountains themselves,”
he said, “was the Aussie spirit out there.”

finish line after 26 hours and 30 minutes of pure endurance. Many racers had
already withdrawn, 108 forms reading “dehydration”, “injury”, or quite simply,

The ‘Person Who Survived the Fastest’ was 39-year-old father
of four Andrew Lee from Warrimoo, NSW, who took away the gold TNF 100 belt
buckle at 10 hrs, 20 minutes, 51 seconds, breaking last year’s record by
approximately two minutes. A surprise even to himself, the event was not only
Lee’s first 100 km, but his first race over 45 km.

For 81st placer John
O’Reagan, who had flown in from Ireland for the event, TNF 100 had been his
final challenge on an extraordinary checklist; “I looked for the hardest run on
every continent, and this was Australia’s.” Taking up running in 2001, John has
competed in some of the most extreme marathons and ultramarathons in the world,
including the Everest and North Pole Marathons. “I think of it as sightseeing
for a man in a hurry,” he quipped. He finished in 15 hours, 51 minutes. “This
was a great race.”

“Why do you run?” is a question commonly asked of
ultramarathon athletes, and one asked just as often of themselves. But no one
who felt the achievement and community of those who had lined up for TNF 100
could deny its attraction. As John O’Reagan says, “Running is hard. But not
running is harder”.

The top 10
Australian walks

The North Face