2017 Northburn 100, New Zealand

2017 Northburn 100, New Zealand

Terry Davis and his team have created a monster, and the brutality of the Northburn 100 has me hobbling like a geriatric this morning!!

Having never raced a miler outside of Australia, it was time to take myself outside my ‘comfort zone’. My only previous experience is the GNW100, (with 5,500m ascent) completing it four times.

This 161km race has 10,000m of vertical, treeless exposed terrain, with weather that can blow you off the mountains and a laughing sadist race director in Terry.

(Whom, it must be noted, picked me up personally from my B&B in Cromwell at 5:10am on the morning of the race. Terry I’m truly grateful.)

I’ve never felt so nervous in the weeks preceding. Fear, excitement and my first time visiting New Zealand; it seemed like a big step for me ‘racing’ across the ‘ditch’.

The race itself is three different loops (50km, 50km and 61km), each with increasing ascent and difficulty level. Names like the ‘Loop of Despair’ and ‘Loop of Deception’ constantly remind you that if there’s a downhill option, that’s not the way you’ll be going!!!

The start. (Sean Beale @ Sweatband Photography)

0 – 50km: 2600m

All three races set off together (50km, 100km and 100mile). The 6am start was slightly delayed as tracking devices were checked. A countdown from 10 and we were off. (Online tracking by ‘YatchtBot‘ proved to be a really cool way family and mates could watch, in real time, the race unfold.)

Still dark, the almost two hundred head torches formed a procession of runners, beginning a day or/and a night or possibly 2 nights (48 hr cut off for milers) in the Central Otago mountains just outside Cromwell, on New Zealand’s south island.

Head torch procession. (Sean Beale @Sweatband Photography)

For myself it was a matter of finding a rhythm, not worrying about anyone else and striking that balance between conserving the quads for later, but keeping the pace honest.

It wasn’t long before the crowds were thinned by the early hills. The usual chatty banter was minimal due to the dark start, but also the regular inclines had folks focusing on what was in front of them, and what was to come.

RD Terry Davis’ race briefing the day before had made it clear and in no uncertain terms, that you enter this race because it’s a total ‘bastard’.  And that’s exactly what you’d get.

Seemingly unnecessary descents back down one side of a mountain would be available, but only to provide horrific ascents right back to where you started via a loop of some sort. He loved it! He was only partially disappointed that the weather wouldn’t live up to the previous year’s 100km/hr winds, that literally blew race leader Charlie Sharpe (UK) over a fence and off a ridge?!! The tag line ‘Northburn – you don’t race it, you survive it’ was a feature he relished.

It was even joked by Dan Bleakman, on the ultrarunning website Ultra168, that athletes may be eligible for a refund for overly mild weather conditions!!!

Quite frankly I was over the moon.

Taking advantage of the cloud cover I wanted to make sure the first 50km loop was as painless as possible in the relatively cool conditions.

Little groups were forming towards the front and I soon realised that including two 100k’ers and a couple of 50kers, I was in the front 13 or 14.

I ran a fair chunk of this section with Jeremy Spencer who’d also ran in last years GNW miler in Oz, as well as bumping into Steve Pemberton doing the 100km.

The most memorable parts were the ‘moon-scaped’ uneven terrain and stunning crystal clear water that ran through soft mossy meandering streams, interspersed with vicious ‘Prickly Spaniards’.

Soft and springy. (Sean Beale @ Sweatband Photography)

On the downside the unsure footing rolled my feet and hip stabilising muscles. My rubbing wet feet and heels were also becoming a slight issues. Blisters! I hadn’t really considered something as basic as that to derail things.

Completing the first 50km I arrived back at the Home Base marquee in around 6:30hrs, with 2600m of vert behind me. Ready to roll, but without crew, I was careful to dry my feet and change into fresh socks. I refuelled and was out in about 10-12 mins.

50 – 100km: 3750m

In a rearrangement of two years previous, circuit two now began with the ‘death march’. A 15 km straight up, vertical trudge.

Jeremy who’d caught me in the cp with a very slick crew, was alongside for the plod. We marched on….

A few rare switch backs allowed for a brief couple of trots, the shaking kit in my ridiculously loaded pack (6-7kg) gave me the impression he was sitting right on my shoulder. It took some time to realise I was slowly creating a gap.

As we gained altitude I could see others up ahead. Not close enough to stress about, but nice to gain an insight. I mentally noted rock outcrops they were passing, checked my watch and timed the difference, 7-8mins. It helped! Not only to gauge the competition, but also how long the visually insane incline would take me; it always pleasantly surprised me and helped maintain a positivity that was growing with each stride.

The cloud cover was gone by now and with zero trees, everyone was fully exposed to the sun.

There is nowhere to hide, Terry’s new tag line.

‘Leaning Rock’ up at the summit. (Sean Beale @ Sweatband Photography)

‘Leaning Rock’ and ‘TW’ provide aid and drop bags check points, but also have out and back sections.

The leader Martin Kern (FRA) was returning, and we briefly shouted words of encouragement.

30mins later Steve Pemberton, was running towards me. Steve was looking strong and said he was first male in the 100km but 2nd overall to female Jess Carroll up ahead. I whooped and congratulated him and told him to finish it off and go hunting..

Within only a couple of mins Ryan Kunz (USA) and three others were approaching, he informed me he was 4th in miler, 6th overall. The others were descending fast.

This was cool, I was seeing the race unfold in front of me.

And then I realised, the turnaround was just up ahead. I was 10th or 11th, but places 5-9 were only just ahead. Sweeet!

And then I checked myself! We were barely half way and with pretty much the whole second loop descent still install, and the most brutal third, 60km loop/night section, still to do.

I decided to ‘calm the farm’. Let the carnage unfold and see what would happen.

Descending the second circuit. (Sean Beale @ Sweatband Photography)

As to be expected, the 18km downhill back to Home Base was anything but.

Eventually I reach the power line trail back to the start/finish, a never ending ‘undulating’ 10km saw me complete the second loop and 100km in 14:15hrs, just after dark.

(There was no sign of Steve in the 100km men’s race. He hadn’t arrived?? Turns out, very soon after I spoke to him, he’d took a wrong turn before TW and ended up doing the whole of the insane “water race”. It must have added on hours. Monumentally unlucky mate!!)

100-161km: 4000m

I was in and out of the checkpoint at Home Base more quickly this time. With no wet socks to change, it was a simple matter of empty my rubbish and refill the pack. I noticed that my food uptake (baby food and Cliffbars) had gone down and I’d survived much of the second 50km on the Trailbrew powder in my water bladder and chest bottles. (I wasn’t overly concerned, but released I’d have to keep a close eye on my nutrition, if I was to prevent any energy disasters later.)

Switching on the Ayup head torch, my path ahead was lit up like a lighthouse. I went out and back along the road for a couple of km’s, before the marshals, shouting encouragement, now directed me left.

Looking up the ominous first climb I caught glimpses of other head torches. They were a long way off but they were there!! With still almost 4,000m of climbing on the remaining 60km loop, there was no need to panic. I was feeling good now and moving well, particularly on the ascents. Hike, hike, hike!!! As fast as I could stride, I kept pushing.

To be honest I had really no idea what was in store this loop. In short I knew it was up, up, up and then some ugly circuits around TW at the summit area. Aside from that it was head down and move forward.

Lights above in the darkness told me that I still had steep stuff ahead, but it was hard to gauge the terrain outside of my immediate beam of my light.

Jean Beaumont (NZ) in 8th was the first person I caught. She was looking strong and it wouldn’t be long before we’d be at TW cp, now the 115km mark.

I ran into the aid station and quickly refilled and attempted to eat one of the chia and coconut pots I’d made. I’d barely opened it, took a glance at the slimy contents and start retching from the depths of my guts. The speed the volunteer backed away was impressive. I laughed and told her not to worry,

“There’s not enough food in there to make a mess.”

Immediately I realised it was Coke time. I’d had to do this once before, so know that it can work. I’d already been knocking back occasional drinks of the syrupy ‘doctor’, but knew now I’d pretty much have to switch to it exclusively.

I filled my two 600ml chest bottles with it and got out of there fast. One minute later I was straight back in. Oops. I’d realised how cold it was (just before midnight) and with a very long descent, before coming back to this aid station twice more, I  changed into my long sleeved merino thermal.

Second attempt and I was out. Jean was now just behind due to my faffing around, but I was happier for the decision. Making my way down the never-ending descent of the 11km “Loop of Despair”, I wondered if we were still on track.

Soon though, I passed another runner in the dark (7th) with his pacer. He sounded like he was doing it tough and was now moving slowly. Down, down, down. All the time knowing, the longer I descended the longer the return would be. At an impromptu toilet stop Jean caught and passed me, but as we began the big climb I was feeling strong and positive. Possibly the sugar and caffeine from the coke!!!

I re-passed her and marched on. At times the steepness was ridiculous. I figured, (obviously) it was no more steep to me than anyone else, and as long as I was moving with more purpose than others, I wasn’t hindering my cause.

Bizarrely I was starting to enjoy this. It was the middle of the night, I was on a mountain in the middle of NZ and I feeling invincible.

Up ahead another runner (6th). This was just getting better. I was soon alongside previous winner Glenn Sutton (NZ). He said something kind about my efforts and I asked how he was going? But now wasn’t the time to start chatting, so I moved on.

We’d moved into the pointy phase of the event and as my coach Andy DuBois says;

“If you can race, now’s the time!!”

Soon I was back into TW, Coke refilled, then out and up to ‘Leaning Rock’ at the summit 3km away. Within 500m of the top I couldn’t believe I’d closed in on Sho Watabe (JPN) the 5th place runner. The aid station crew were in tents on the freezing ridge up there. We reported our numbers, and immediately turn around. He kept close for a while, before we met a car, placed to signal the point where you’re ‘thrown’ off the side of the mountain, down a virtually unmarked trail. The ‘Water Race’, is exactly what you don’t want at 129km. Ropes are tied to prevent runners falling backwards along heavily sloped hillsides.

I occasionally checked behind and could see head torches of those I’d passed getting dimmer.

The next ascent was exactly what I’d come to expect by now, steep and long. At least it was now on an easy to navigate, unsealed road.

I ran into TW for the final time and refilled with Coke. (This would have been a good time to jettison all unnecessary food that was weighing me down. Like a ‘security blanket’ I clung to it; just in case?)

Sitting in 5th place and heading towards a time that was way beyond all expectations, I began to run hard. This was it. 139km done: 21km to go. The tracks were runnable and I started to stride out.

Some parts were retraced, others were new. I got excited a few times when those completing the 100km event came into sight.

The miler then veers to the right, for the final climb. With only 13km remaining, another 500m hike is thrown in for good luck. Seriously!!!

Mid-way up I did get very excited, as a light ahead was moving very slowly and I hoped it was Ryan Kunz in 4th. Sadly for both me and the guy in question is wasn’t. He was a miler completing his second loop and had unnecessarily ventured up, instead of ahead for the undulating approach of the second loop.

Finally the summit!

The home straight and remaining 7km was non-technical and very runnable. I checked my watch and for the first time realised the time: 24:15hrs.

I’d hoped to finish under 30hrs, maybe sub 27hrs if everything really went well. Now though I was reassessing. All I could think was exactly what I’d visualised in previous races: another Andy tip.

Picture the time and tell yourself nothing else will do.

And so I did. Sub 25, something starting with 24:??hrs, nothing else will do.

At an intersection I passed Marina Brun, (who I’d car shared and flown over from Australia) going out on her last loop. She’s done this beast a few times and was more than a little apprehensive this time about cut-off times. To be honest she’d scared the shit out of me over the two days leading up to the race.

I was over the moon to see her heading out, she was going to do it easily, (and did: finishing in a superb sub 40hrs). We hastily shouted our support to each other.

I picked up the pace, rounded a few corners, passed the final enthusiastic volunteers in the bottom car and along the flat road that approaches the vineyard.

It was still dark, I honestly couldn’t believe it; I crossed the line in 24:51hrs, stunned!!!!

I literally stood there swearing in disbelief. I wasn’t meant to be there so soon, crossing the line in 5th place overall, 1st in my age category (40-49). I’d been petrified by the prospect of this race, but there I was.

Even writing this, I still haven’t processed the feeling of gratitude and happiness I got from this event. I’m still buzzing!

And there it is…… Northburn you are amazing!

A huge thanks to everyone who sits out all night volunteering and making events like this possible and to everyone who has supported me in the 5 months leading up to this one!!

The spoils – The Northburn 100 mile buckle!!!


Special thanks to:

  • My wife Christine and the kids (Sandy and Stella)
  • Alvin Caoynan and the team AdOnDigital for making Northburn possible, so grateful! (http://adondigital.com.au/)
  • Coach Andy DuBois: Mile27 (http://mile27.com.au/)
  • Troy Lethlean at Trail Brew (http://trailbrew.com/team/)
  • Byron Bay Runners: WhatsApp and Facebook support
  • All the runners and volunteers
  • Race Director: Terry Davis