GNW 100s Race Report

Shona Stephenson GNW100s ultra runner trail running Australia

GNW 100s Lead up

My lead up to my first 100 mile event the Great North Walk 100s (GNW 100s) was perfect. My body was feeling great. I finally felt like my body was finally able to handle the kilometers of training and racing I was putting into it. I won three 100km events in 3 months I was in great form. The only problem was that I was not fully recovered in my chest form Great Ocean Walk (GOW 100). During GOW I was having problems breathing from the 30km mark. I felt like I was only able to preform at about 80%. I should have seen this as a warning sign with my asthma, but I was busy (poor excuse). Too busy to go to the doctors and check out. Besides, who want to go to the doctors when you could be out running?

On the Wednesday before GNW 100s I was forced to go to the doctors. My asthma was now out of control. I felt like I could not inhale my preventive drug properly into my lungs past my swollen trachea. The doctor was not impressed with the state that I was in. She said I was rattling all over my chest and she prescribed me with some drugs to help get rid of the inflammation out of my lungs and a nasal spray for my nose to help me with my chronic hay fever. She then insisted that I come back for clearance on Friday before I raced because I clearly was not well enough to race in the state that I was in.

I did some further tests and I blew into the spirometer and I could only manage 68% on Wednesday (This is 68% for someone who is my weight and height not necessary for an elite athlete). The last time I was tested and I was having problems was before the Woodford2Glenbrook. That race I really struggled. I knew going into GNW 100s I was really sick.

On Friday I ignored the doctors advise to come back for clearance before I ran my first 100 miler. I decided I did not want to know how my lungs were functioning before attempting GNW 100s. I’d booked accommodation, organized Barefoot Inc, UltrAspire, Inov8 race kit, Hammer Nutrition and Ay-Up Lights. I was racing no matter what and the thought of not starting this race did cross my mind but I was hoping I would make a speedy recovery. I sat in the car driving up to Newcastle with my heart pounding. My heart was pounding in a PT session that morning too. I never feel my heart working like that. I guess the infection in my trachea was out of control. I could feel my chest throbbing. I sucked on anti-inflammtries cough lozenges hoping they would help with my inflamed trachea. I asked Mikey if we could find a doctor so I could get some antibiotics so I could try and get rid of the infection before the race. He just looked at me like I was stupid.

GNW 100s Race Day

On Race day I woke up had all my medications that I was given and went to the start line. I was sick, hacking up my lungs but apart form that I felt good. Running does not really effect my asthma (ed note, Obviously it does, Shona is in denial). I’ve only just been diagnosed in June 2012. It’s just when I am really working hard that I get asthma when exercising. Like in the last 10km of a 100km event for a flat sprint like a 10km is when I feel my asthma. Or if I’m racing or training and there is smoke or a cold southeryly wind. The Stupid “Fluffy Bomb” Tree sets off my asthma too. I say that but when I do get asthma, when I’m pushing over 80% my trachea narrows from 3.4cm to 2.6cm after only 6 minutes making it harder for me to get air in and out of my lungs. In fact I have 81 times less airflow than normal. However if I’m starting a race with an already inflamed trachea, with less airflow, it’s going to be tough to continuously get air in and out of my lungs. This was what I was starting my first GNW 100s Miler with. Knowing this. Knowing 400 people die every year from asthma attacks too. I did not have a pacer for the night and I was hoping that Barefoot Inc Athlete, Matty Abel would make it through the first 103.4km in good condition so I’d have a friend to run with through the night to keep each other safe.

I warmed up ate my gels and mingled at the start line. I spotted my mates Brendan, Matty, Marc, Noel, Beth, Damian and wished them all good luck. Before long the count down was on and we were off and running. My plan for the GNW 100s was to conserve my energy and stay under my anaerobic threshold for as long as possible. I have a habit of going out fast. But for this race I just wanted to be consistent.

I ran up the road chatting to Matty and Marc and just trying to chill out and not run too fast. I really enjoyed how relaxed I felt even though I was spitting out mucous the entire way up the street, in and out of fire trails and single man track for the first 15km.

I waved to the crowd at the start of the first major climb of the day and warned Matty that it was going to hurt. I spotted Noel and Beth ahead of me and just tried to keep them in view as I walked and ran my way up to the top of the 434m climb. We re-grouped at the top and ran on together Matty, Marc and myself chatting and just feeling relaxed. The fire trail soon climbed again up to over 500m and I again was able to spy Beth and Noel up ahead and I was surprised that I was able to stick with them. I felt good. I was not pushing too hard.

We turned left and I followed Noel down the single man track before he moved aside and let me past. It was so nice running this race with all my mates. I felt like we were almost on a training run rather than running a race.

I flew down the single man track with Matty close behind. For a big guy he is really agile. We ran along together spotting pink dots on the trees and we soon climbed up and out of the rain forest and crossed over the fire trail and down the single man track when I became worried that we’d taken the wrong turn. I could not see any foot prints in front of me and I decided to back track. We should have run into Beth and Damian by now. Matty and I ran back up the track turned right and after about 1km of running found Beth, Damian and I knew we were all lost.

“Sorry Matty, my fault.” I said “I guess we were meant to find my friends and show them the correct way to go, hopefully the Trail Running Gods will be on our side now.”

“Shona your running well, maybe I should just stick with you and then I’ll break your record”. Beth complemented.

I was predicting that my mate Beth you would take a chunk out of my record. It was just a matter of how much. I was running ahead of schedule up until we lost the track. We probably lost about 10-15 minutes. We all back tracked and found the single man track and kicked on together. Before long we are all lost again. The dry weather with the leaf litter was making it really hard to follow the trail even though it had been raining. Again we all back tracked and soon found the correct trail to follow.

We were all off and running again along the single man track.The trail was so slippery with the leaf litter I’d slipped and fell over about 4 times in that section of track. I never fall over. I kept taking the hit on my left butt. I was covered in mud and I had not even run 30km yet.

We kicked it on as a group and soon arrived into the Old Watagan Forestry HQ.

Shona Stephenson GNW100s ultra runner trail running Australia
Shona Stephenson GNW100s CP1

GNW 100s Cp1-Cp2

I quickly ran in to the bag drop, swapped my water bottle over and grabbed my food bag and ran back out again.  I was not going to waste time at the CP’s. I was off and running and I managed to catch up with Marc and Noel who obviously did not get lost. I ran along with them just cruising and soon Matty and Damian caught up with me too. I decided to have a pee and let the boys go on. I had put on 3 kilos in carbs and hydration in the morning and I felt like I was not needing to drink as much as previously thought.

At 40km Matty started to struggle, I gave him some Perpetuem with is protein to help his muscles and I pushed on. At 45km I caught back up with Noel and Marc at the single man track and I rolled down the descent along a technical trail. Out of the blue I caught a rock and tripped and fell flat on my stomach. I was lucky I did not injury myself. The  ground was soft and I my lucky. I picked myself up and ran on at the base of the climb I caught Damian again. On the road I spotted Beth. I was not running so bad. Even though I was sick. I felt fresh, full of energy. Heaps of energy. Yet I was coughing like hell the minute I stopped, but this did not bother me.

At Congewai Public School I quickly weighed in 52 kilos on the scales. It suggested that I’d lost over 2 kilos. Man that seemed like a lot. But I felt great, full of energy and I was hydrated needing to pee a few times on the 5 hours of running. When they suggested that I stop I almost laughed at them. (Later they worked out their scales were wrong!).

I quickly swapped my bags over, had my gear checked and headed out of there. I spotted Gill Fowler on the way out and another female runner too. I guess the race was now all on.

Shona Stephenson GNW100s ultra runner trail running Australia
Shona Stephenson GNW100s CP2

GNW 100s Cp2-Cp3

I caught up with Damian while I sorted my gear out and had some ventolin before the next big climb. I was starting to feel the effects of now 6 hours of running on my asthma. I had my ventolin. I waited for 20 minutes and I could not feel an improvement and I had some more. It’s hard to get the correct dose in while on the run. I have to stop and walk and recover before I can have the ventolin properly.

At the top of the 496m climb I had Damian and the Blue guy in my sights. I caught up with them on the next descent and tried my hardest to stick with them up the next climb. I had Gilly following me and I knew I had to stick with these guys to stay ahead of her. I pushed hard, running 110 steps then walking 20 when the climbs became to steep to run and at the top of the next climb at the un manned water stop I caught the guys.

“Shona I have to say you are one tough chick. I just can’t shake you”, Damian said.

All I could do was cough my lungs out. I was having a mild attack.

“Do you have ventolin on you”. Damian asked concerned.

“Yeah”. I decided to have some more. I was coughing and wheezing uncontrollably. I was not too concerned at this stage though.

I kicked it on and tried to stay with the boys again. I soon passed the Blue guy and I rolled down the hill onto the single man track down towards the Basin. I just nursed my body through here. Taking care not put too much impact on my body. I had a long race ahead and I wanted make it to Patonga.  I spotted Beth Cardelli on her way out of the Basin looking as fresh as can be. I arrived at the Basin in under 10 hours, again under my goal for the race. I quickly found my dropped bag and decided to have my Serotide, my asthma preventive. It had been 12 hours since I had the last dose. I was wheezing pretty badly and coughing uncontrollably. I was due for some more. Before long I was out of there.

I was starting to feel a bit sick. I was not able to stomach the gels in a full dose. I decided to have them every 45 minutes, taking 1/3 in every 15 minutes. This seemed to do the trick. I was also eating Perpetuem Solids every 15-20 minutes also. I was bummed because I’d run out of them coming into CP3. They were working really well for me.

GNW 100s Cp3-Cp4

I took off out of the check point and I was soon passed my Gill Fowler, she looked so strong and I was really struggling with my breathing. I again had some more ventolin. I could feel my trachea narrowing, tightness in my chest.

I was passed by my mate Damian and we chatted about Gill passing me and how all was not to worry about it. It was a long race and I just needed to look after myself. Damian soon was out of sight and again at the top of the climb I caught up with him. He was having problems with directions.(This was probably where Beth Cardelli went wrong) We worked out together the correct way to go and we soon kicked it on. I checked my time and I needed to call Dad and let him know I was running early.

Damian soon was out of sight and I did my best to walk and run while trying to get in tough with my support crew I was running ahead of schedule. I pushed on up the climb then rolled down the hill and tried to prepare myself for the race that was about to begin.

I ran out onto the road and I soon spotted race director Dave Byrnes.

“Nice and steady Shona, keep it nice and steady.” He encouraged.

I was feeling sick, and a little bit tired. I was not sure if I’d swallowed mucous into my stomach and it was sending me a bit off. I decided to walk for a bit just to let myself recover. I had a long way ahead of me and there was no point pushing myself if I did not feel good.

I started to feel better and I managed to down a Hammer Gel. This seemed to spur me on. I was running faster than what I did the year before without trying to run faster. I was just that much fitter this year. I was soon joined on the road by Marcus Warner in his car. He slowed down to talk to me.

“How are you feeling, are you feeling okay?” He asked.

“Yeah, just a bit sick”, I replied.

“Get some banana’s and the next check point that should help settle your gut”. He suggested. “This bit sucks, the road hurts. How are your feet”.

“My feet feel fine, my body feels good I just feel sick”. I replied.

Everyone feels sick during an ultra or race. I knew I just had to wait until I felt better. I just tried to chill out and turn my legs over and roll along the road.

I soon spotted Brian, Beth Cardelli’s husband.

“Hey Brian, how did Beth go? Did she break 12 hours?”. I asked. It’s funny but I really wanted her to break 12 hours. I think she is that good.

“No” He replied.”She has not finished yet”.

“What where is she?” I asked concerned that she’d gotten lost.

“She’s behind you”. He said.

I turned around and there was Beth Cardelli looking a bit sheepish running down the road.

“Come on Beth you have 20 minutes to run 3 kms and break the record”. Brian shouted out to encourage her.

“Beth go! Run, Beth run! Break the record!” I shouted at her as she ran past.

Man what a race this is turning out to be. I was feeling sick. I felt crap. I had asthma. I could feel my trachea was swollen and it was hard to get air in and out of my lungs but seeing Beth charge down the street gave me a little lift. I did my best to roll along with her but she soon put the turbo charge on and was sprinting to the finish line.

In my head I knew I was not going to stop at this check point. There was no way I was giving up there. I tried to remind myself about how beautiful it will be coming into Patonga with the sun coming up. The trail through there are gorgeous. I really wanted to kick on. I wanted to do what I set out to do. All I had to do was get through that check point and I would have run further than ever before.

I rolled into the check point feeling not the best. Yet I managed to run a PB 12 hours 39 minutes, a 9 minute PB. The minute I stopped running I was coughing. Coughing uncontrollably and wheezing. I was weighed in and I’d put on a kilo weighing 53 kilos. (Or I’d only lost 1 kilo thus far in the race). I looked at my Dad and I asked him where my best mate and training partner Renae was.

“Her child was really sick so she could not make it”. He said.

This was a huge blow to me. Renae is a great mate. She has run the last two Coastreks with me in my winning 50km team. She knows what I need at Check Points. My Dad has never been to one of my events before. He has no idea what I look like when I’m working hard. His face when he saw me was of pure horror. I could tell he was concerned.

I tried to talk and not cough on everyone. I sorted out my gear and then my Dad informed me that all my drinks were frozen solid. This was the second blow I could not take. I like my drinks chilled, almost icy to help with my asthma. I find that eating and drinking just frozen fluids help with the inflammation in my chest and is soothing for my trachea reducing the inflammation and helping me breathe better. But I forgot to tell Dad to get them out at lunch time. No one thought to pour hot water on them to de-frost them, no one thought to re-fill the drinks I already had on me. I was not thinking right either. It was a bit of a disaster. I wanted to put out drop bags myself so they’d be organized to my liking and not have to rely on anyone, but my husband suggested it was best that I give my Dad something to do for the race.

After having yet some more ventolin to help control my coughing this time through a spacer. I could barely breath out before I inhaled the ventolin back in. I saw the look on everyone’s face as I did this. I could tell that everyone there wanted me to pull the plug and just give up and look after myself. I was sick, wheezing, coughing and not well. I was playing with my asthma, and people die from asthma. I walked out of the check point.

GNW 100s Cp4- To deciding to record my first DNF/h3>

I saw Dad drive around the corner and I desperately wanted him back. I pulled out my iPod and tried to get some tunes happening but I could not get it to work. Bloody Mikey must have done an up-date I thought. (Clearly I was not thinking right). I then turned on my Garmin which I had switched with my Suunto and I hated it instantly. Bloody Mikey had my Garmin set to cycle and I could not be bothered or I as not in the right frame of mind to re-start it and change it to running. It then had the auto pause beeping at me every few minutes or so turning off and losing meters. It was frustrating.

It then started to rain and I started to get really cold. I again started to wheeze my way up the climb and I tight in my chest. I desperately tried to drink from my frozen water bottles and I even help one in my hand to try and defrost it as I walked up the climb. How much ventolin can I have? I’d only just had some back at the check point. I had it through a spacer. I should not need more. My trachea was closing off and I was wheezing and coughing my way up the climb. I had some more ventolin. I was really worried now. I was being stupid.  I then started to miss my husband and kids. I felt such an uncontrollable amount of love for them. I then just wanted to be with them. I was sick. I was having problems breathing and I wanted to be at home warm and safe with them.

I stopped and looked at the map and got my phone out. When I stopped I was caught by Nikolay Nikolaev the GNW 100s Miler veteran. He was being paced by Jess Baker, 2nd placed female from 2011.

“Hi Shona how are you?” Jess kindly asked.

“I miss my husband and kids”. I said to Jess and Nikolay as they went past.

“Ohhhhh, come and walk with us we are not going very fast”, Jess offered.

I was about as low as you could go. I wanted to get out of there. I also thought that if I could just hold on to them I would be okay. But my heart wanted to stop. I desperately wanted to see my husband and kids. I felt like what I was doing was so wrong, so selfish. I should be with them. I missed them more than ever before. I’ve never felt such an urge to return home to them.

I soon dropped off Jess and Nikolay and I called my Dad. My Dad is a courier, he can find me no matter where I am. I may as well have been 16 years old and calling my Dad to come and pick me up because, I’d run out of money, I have a flat tire, I’ve crashed the car, I’m stuck at Manly Police Station, the list goes on.

Dad was relieved that I’d pulled out. He has never seen or heard me sound so sick. I have never sounded so sick. I had made my way to the top of Bumble Hill the last major climb of the day and decided to pull the plug. I ran out onto Greta Rd and looked at the cross street and thought about going on. The thought crossed my mind many times as I stood on the side of the road wether to go on or not. It was a lovely down hill down, easy pickings for me. I loved running along that section at night with Brendan and Clarke in training. I then thought about the ruggered single man track ahead of me and I new how remote is was. I was also running alone with asthma. I did not trust myself. I did not trust that I would be okay. I have used up all my chances. I know what my lungs look like after 100km of running when I am sick. I have never been this sick when running a Ultra. I just did not want to test out what my lungs would look like after 174km of running.

I looked down the street and again thought about going on. But I had Dad on the way. Stop being an idiot. Just stop. I was coughing uncontrollably. I was coughing so much that I was setting off all the farm dogs in the area with my now barking cough. Cars were driving past. I tried to stay out of sight, not wanting the shame of pulling out be seen until I was ready for it to be seen. Finally after about 20 minutes or so of waiting Dad turned up.

I fell into the car freezing, coughing, shivering. I tried to call Dave Byrnes but his phone was out of range. I drove into Somersby Check Point 5 and let them know I was safe but I was pulling out of the race. I was in a real state.

I returned home to my husband and kids and I live to run another day. I really do feel like I dodged a bullet by pulling out of GNW 100s. At about 6:30am the next day after feeding my kids breaky and giving them all a massive hug and really appreciating m family of so much more. I dragged everyone down the the finish line to see what had unfolded over the night. Brendan Davies won the GNW 100s with a scorching time of 19 hours 27. Nikolay came in second with 23 hours 33 minutes. My good friend Damian Smith 23 hours 40 minutes. Gill Fowler came in 3rd overall, 1st placed female with 23 hours 58 minutes. Gill became the first female to run sub 24 hours for the GNW 100s. I was so happy that she managed to achieve this milestone.

I sat on the finish line and I watched everyone run in over the finish line and kiss the GNW 100 sign post for next 10 hours. I learnt that everyone who managed to finish the GNW 100s was a champion. Everyone who made it to the finish of the 174km is a legend. They were all filled with pure satisfaction of their accomplishment. I was in awe of their courage to make it to Patonga. It take’s some runners like Grant Campbell 8 years of trying to finish. Imagine not giving up for 8 years.