Northburn 2021 - 100 miles
1 year ago #
I originally set out to do this race in 2020, it was going to be the big goal race for me of the year. I would fly down to Queenstown, hang out there for a couple weeks, do the race, and then return back to Auckland and continue on back to Canada. At least that was what I was telling everybody. My job had come to an end, and I was at a bit of a loose end as to what to do. My intention in 2017 was to visit New Zealand and live there on a working holiday visa for a year, or 2. And so that year or two had already come and gone, and it was 3 years in.
It seemed natural that since my job was coming to an end, and I didn't have any real reasons to stay planted in New Zealand, that I was ready to move on and find a different journey. To me, my trail running journey started in New Zealand, and progressed to doing trail ultramarathons, and a 100 mile race is definitely one that most people think about at one point. What a better way to leave NZ than with a bang.
100 miles, or 161km is a long way to go. Then you throw in the elevation at Northburn station, and you end up with New Zealands toughest 100 mile race. I was curious about it, how would my body hold up? how would my mind hold up? But 2020 had different plans for me. I felt like I had done the training, and was ready for the race. But the COVID pandemic hit, and I paused that goal. Seemed like I wasn't going to leave NZ afterall, and that I would stay and revisit 100 miles a year later.
Pandemic training #
With all the lockdowns of 2020, I switched to doing the most road running I had ever done before, and also the most running ever. Without any options to have big weekend adventures, I resorted to spending my time on the road, trying to hit the local hills as much as possible, but also toying with track intervals. After the 2020 race got cancelled, I hadn't really committed to the idea of doing a 100 mile race, I didn't want to train and be let down again, so I ran for the sake of enjoyment. I committed to Dry July, with an added challenge of doing 1 hill repeat of Mt Eden for every $5 donated. I had never been one to do personal challenges for donations, but this seemed like it would be a good distraction, and challenge. This resulted in over $700 raised, 136 summits of Maungawhau, nearly 13000km elevation, and 300km distance. This month propelled me to be very consistent in my running, albeit it was majority road. Throughout the rest of the year, whenever we were out of lockdowns I threw in some longer weekend adventures, but this was limited. My longest runs before Northburn were 80km at Blue Lake and then 60km at Kepler Challenge.
The taper #
My taper before the race was a bit of a concern, because I think I overdid it at Kepler and didn't allow my body enough time to recover, and instead I dug myself into a bigger hole. So for almost 3 weeks before Northburn, I did basically did 1 or 2 5km runs, and the rest was walking and hiking. My legs felt tired and not at 100%, and this was a worrying feeling. I couldn't tell if it was a mental tiredness from a pandemic year, or if they were fatigued from going too hard at Kepler (8 weeks ago). What I focussed the most on was making sure my mind was strong. I knew no matter what, once I had decided to do the race, that I would complete it at all costs. The game plan was to start really easy, keep the ego in check, and be cheerful and happy as long as I could.
The race #
The Northburn 100 mile course consists of 3 laps, 50km, 60km, 50km. After each lap you are back at race HQ, which means you can see your support crew and spend time refueling there. Apart from that, the aid stations on course are sparse, except for the TW point, where you can put a drop bag with food/clothes approximately halfway into lap 2 and 3. My original plan was to be self crewed, and with no pacer. But coming into the race my girlfriend Kim joined me, and I contacted my mate Gareth to see if he was interested in pacing me for the last lap.
Lap 1 #
A reasonable 6am start time, the morning wasn't as cold as I thought it would've been. We got an Airbnb 2 minutes away from the start, so this meant I could do all my bodily functions before getting to the start. The previous day in Queenstown was quite cold, so I thought I would start in a long sleeve, but it was actually quite warm and with no wind. Headlights on and off we go, I try to chat with as many people as possible, calming the nerves and helping the time go by. The first 5km is a quick loop that sees us go by race HQ and the start line again, so we get to see the supporters. I saw Malcolm Law briefly before he shot off into the distance. As the sun came out, we started on the long 15km-ish climb to the top of Mount Dunstan 1670m. I finally met Brook, whom I had seen on social media before, and we chatted for a bit. Along the climb I also ran into my friend Claire, and then also Zoe. I first met Zoe at Taupo, at my first ultramarathon, where I was doing the 50km. Then in later years I would continue to see her at Taupo as I was crewing and being a cheerleader on the side.
I also met Tanya Bottomley and Connor Harding, and we spent some time getting to the top of Dunstan, and the aid station together. After the first 25km, it was a massive downhill which I took it very cruisingly. I wanted to preserve my quads as much as possible, but also to maintain good body temperature. The downhill followed a creek, which made for very fun hopping back and forth on the green mossy sides, while being surrounded by barren rocky terrain. I finished the first lap, 50km, in 8h 32 minutes which was a good time considering I felt really fresh still. I loved going into the HQ and seeing all the familiar faces around helping. What I wasn't prepared for was the screaming agony from Mal Law who was lying on the ground with the worst cramp I have ever witnessed in my life. I stuffed my face with food, while my amazing partner helped refill bottles and hand me clean clothes. It was midday by now and I knew the next 15km would all be uphill in the sun with no shade. I chatted a bit with Katie Wright who was there helping out, since I missed her after her win at Tarawera.
Lap 2 #
The 'death climb' is the start of lap 2, which is another long climb to Leaning Rock, the highest point of lap 2 and 3. I had previously seen this climb before and I knew this climb crushed the spirits of many people. I started off eating, because it would slow my pace down, which was the plan. Kim brought me a lunch she bought from a cafe, so I was happily munching on that while going uphill. I spent most of the uphill alone, I saw a couple people ahead and behind, so I slowly worked to catch them. Overall, as the sun was beating down on me, I still felt pretty great. I manage to do quite well in the heat, so I actually enjoyed the light roasting. As I'm writing this, 4 weeks later, I don't really have any stand out memories from the climb. It was hot, but not unbearable, it was a long way, but not too difficult. At one of the water stations, the volunteer said we might be able to see Mt. Cook in the distance because it was such a clear sky, but I didn't see anything. On the stretch towards Leaning Rock, the wind really picked up and the temperatures dropped, but since we were still moving solidly, it was fine. At Leaning Rock I stopped for some coke and chips, and put on a layer because the sun was dropping and I knew it would get cold quickly. The water race section I thought was quite tricky, it consisted of loose shale-like rocks downhill. My goal was always to get it done before dark, because it would have been way slower in the dark. I watched as Tanya effortlessly galloped the downhill and that was the last I saw of her, while I gingerly placed my feet and walked.
I got to TW just after it got dark, and helped myself to pumpkin soup and hot potatoes. My first mistake happened here, because I got a bit comfortable and took too much time. It was cold by this point and instead of eating, stuffing my pockets with food and moving on quickly, I stopped and sat down for break. I remember Andy Smith asking me if I'd like to go along with him since we'd been going well together. But instead I had more soup and helped myself to more salted potatoes. I sat in a chair and ate, and updated friends on my phone till my hands got too cold to type and that's when I moved along. But I took a bag full of heavily self-salted potatoes for the rest of the lap. Later on I would regret this decision. While at TW, I saw some people pull the pin, and as I was going down, the support vehicle had picked up runners would weren't continuing, at this stage I still felt quite good and was making my way down alone in the dark. The downhill towards Mt. Horn hut was fairly uneventful, except just before the aid station I got a bit mixed up and the map I had said to go a different way. So I did a couple extra km of backtracking, but in the end found the right way. At this point I was quite sleepy, around 20h in the race, and also was probably a bit underfueled. I ate all the salted potatoes and gels and bars I had, but still had around 15km to go. It was during this time that I realised I put way too much salt on the potatoes, and my water was going straight through my body. In my mind I was stopping and peeing every 20 minutes, but your mind plays tricks in the dark.
I gradually made my way back towards HQ, making my way past the Brewery aid station and then along the Pylon track. This is the only time during the entire course that I put some music on to help me get to HQ, where there was food and friends waiting. The entire time I kept telling myself that I was tired, but once I got to the HQ tent I would be able to nap. But after getting there and having some hot food prepared by my partner, I realised that the bright lights made me instantly not tired. I was energertic again and in good spirits. I took a bit longer than I wanted, sitting and chatting and eating, but eventually my pacer, Gareth, and I set off into the dark.
Lap 3 #
110km done, and 50km left, I knew that I had more than 24 hours to finish and it would be done. There are almost no doubt in my mind that no matter what happened on the last lap, I should/would have plenty of time. With this in mind, I set off into the dark and instantly began hallucinating as I was walking past the vineyards. I was mumbling nonsense to Gareth at one point, and luckily he was there to guide us along. These kilometers I don't really remember much, apart from stumbling along, one foot infront of the other. I saw the 1st place winner zoom past me, and then later on I also saw my friend Andrew come past in 2nd. Gareth was muttering encouragement in the form of "when the sun comes out, you'll be less tired" and I trudged uphill, believing him. At this point, I was mostly too sleepy to continue. At one point, I finally succumbed to the tiredness and let Gareth know that I had to stop and have a lie down. I'm not sure how long I slept for, but after I got off the cold hard ground, I felt rejuvenated and was quite keen to continue up towards TW. The rest of the uphill journey was quite spectacular, as we were ascending, so too was the sun, and the clouds were dropping. We walked up through the cloud layer and then was treated to sunshine.
Upon reaching TW, we knew that the loop of despair would be next. I had already knew that it was no fun, but in the midday sun and heat, the loop of despair truly destroyed me. After going uphill for most of the morning, the loop starts with a massive downhill that sees you almost back at the start elevation, and then you go back up. The entire loop consisted of me whinging, then sitting down, then whinging again. I think the 10km loop took me 3 hours or more, and it felt like an eternity. I was so happy to see TW again after we finished the punishing loop. By the point I was very tired, but still able to run, which was a good sign. After running to Leaning Rock and back, we began the long journey back down to Mt. Iron, and then Brewery again. All this downhill was actually quite decent going, with my legs still able to run. At Brewery, the volunteer there pointed us towards the last leg of the adventure, up towards something called Bicycle. The way I interpreted it, it seemed like a short lil uphill, then a cruisey 10km towards the finish. What it turned out to be was going uphill constantly, hill after hill, and very strong winds blowing as the sun was setting. This took whatever was left of my morale, along with my legs. After all the downhills, and then the uphill, my right knee was starting to act up. Upon reaching the top of bicycle, we learned that there was still 10km of "only downhill" to go.
Sadly it was at this point that I could no longer run the downhills as my leg was in too much pain. I might've cried a little when I knew we were so close, yet so far still and I could only manage a hobble downhill. I knew that I would no longer finish before sunset, as that was my plan because I was scared of hallucinating in the dark again. To make matters worse, I was a bit overconfident and didn't actually take any spare batteries for my head torch, as I didn't expect to need to go through another night. Luckily there were no more technical bits, so we walked the last 10km in towards the finish. I walked across the line 39 hours after I had started, and got a final hug from Terry.