Starting at 0600 Saturday and finishing a little before 1400 Sunday. That’s just under 32hrs of action. Incredibly the 32hrs passed (almost) without incident. So at the finish line I told Terry “that’s the easiest 100 miler I’ve ever run”. He looked perturbed. I then added it was my only 100 miler setting him at ease.
The scene was set well the evening before with Terry’s (race director) briefing. He gave great insights like – “The course is a giant hazard bomb waiting to go off”. “Any plant higher than grass will draw blood if you get too close”. “The weather up there is serious, you will need your compulsory gear as a minimum”. “It’s barren up there, bleak, there are no trees, nothing”. “Past editions have been a bit easy, and the course has been adjusted to induce anguish rather than joy among finishers”.
The Death Climb, The Loop of Deception, and The Loop of Despair were outlined. The idea of Northburn is to test limits, accordingly not everyone will finish. These dire warnings were delivered in such a way that excited rather than intimidated. Weirdly I came out of the briefing more confident. Partly I guess because the organisers were so supportive, humorous, and warm in their challenge to each of us.
It seems the prep and planning outlined in a previous post (Preparing for Northburn as a 100 mile virgin) were up to task. Perhaps more than anything the switch from pre-event readiness anxiety to absolute belief and resolve on race-day cleared the way for a truly enjoyable adventure. Once we got underway I had no doubt I’d finish, and this belief only increased over the coming hours. The race strategy was simplified to lap 1 hold back, lap 2 maintain, lap 3 suck it up.
I didn’t fully manage to keep a complete lid on the first lap, especially near The Top checkpoint where I was running a bit harder to stay warm and minimise time up there (was cold, and rather windy). Ended up coming in just over an hour quicker than my estimate. Not sure if that was a good thing.
Lap 1 itself was scenic (when you weren’t in the cloud), with a lot of off-trail running and really pretty even if you were running through sections of the stabby plants. And the stream sections were like running on a sponge mattress (mossy grass). The lap itself was simple, a short ‘Home Loop’ back to the start for the supporters, then an ~18km climb followed by a ~15km downhill, then the Loop of Deception. You get to within a few hundred meters of base only to endure a ~12km tough hill loop. Brilliant.
Stopping at base to greet Supporter-in-Chief Victoria, resupply, use the portaloo, swap out shirt for an MEC singlet, and reapply lots of lube everything was good to go heading out for The Death Climb on lap 2. No sign of doubt after the first 50km, still felt like everything was easy. I never really took notice of the comings and goings of the first lap, but I was passing a good number of runners/hikers up The Death Climb. This climb was the real deal with big sections of solid gradient, and it went on and on, and on. And on. And on. Etc.
On the steeper sections I had my left achilles start to protest – tight, hot, tender. I compensated by picking footing to flatten it out, using poles more, and loading the right leg a bit. It didn’t seem too dangerous, and discomfort rapidly subsided when the gradient eased up. Something to manage but not an event killer.
The second lap was a little more involved than the first, both navigationally, and climbing-wise. Though most of it was on 4×4 tracks or service roads. After The Death Climb I had my first moment of course confusion as we unexpectedly came upon TW, the high mountain aid-station/shelter. I’d pretty much had the first two laps committed to memory and we weren’t supposed to see TW till after we’d looped back from Leaning Rock (the high point of lap 2).
Turned out there’d be a late change in course, the reason for which would soon be evident. The ridge up to Leaning Rock was high and exposed, and runners coming back down warned us to brace ourselves. The wind up there was Beaufort scale 9 (severe gale), leaning into it often wasn’t enough and you’d find yourself thrown from one side of the road to the other. Hunching over helped. The change in course was to give us a slight bit of protection as the original course would have been somewhat worse.
From the high point of lap 2, the descent back to base had a solid 1500m of climbing in it. This was actually a good thing, I found the continuous descent of lap 1 a bit tough. My descending sucked a big kumara, I was taking it really slow and all the people I’d overtake on the climbs would wizz by on the descents (though admittedly by now there weren’t too many people around. I might see one or two max at any given time).
In hindsight I may have been holding back a little too much on the downs, perhaps I should have been freewheeling instead of being constantly on the brakes. Though by the end, I had a deep right quad tenderness that may have proved more problematic had I let go on the downhills. Who knows?
The descent towards Brewery Creek also coincided with nightfall. At this point of the course there was only a bit of broken cloud and a decent moon which made it a lovely time/place to be running. I took the opportunity to call the kids and say goodnight. For some reason I was really looking forward to running into the night and I was still feeling rock solid. Everything was happy-good. Though in getting closer to base the mind kept projecting forward to lap 3, the monster. I really saw no point dwelling on it at this time so constantly brought it back to the ‘now’. Now being a good current mental/physical state, the next marker, a tasty treat, some cool water.
Entering base after 100km (~15hrs?), I was tired sure, but that was all. Still positive, still nothing approaching the suffering I’d feared by this point. Victoria was there again at a commandeered table with all my stuff dumped on it. I opted to change socks and re-vas the feet. Fistfulls of lube again applied elsewhere. Then wetwipe freshen up, and down to eating. The pumpkin soup and boiled potatoes with butter and salt were divine and I was evidently hungry as I had a few servings. Brushing the teeth was a great final activity before restarting (thanks Mike) was refreshing plus.
I’d often anticipated the mental difficulty in leaving base in the middle of the night after having already done 100km. What I actually felt was excitement in heading into the ‘mile’ bit of the hundred miler. The extra 60km, the running through till dawn, the night time solitude, the sense of wonder that I was still good to go. I was evidently a bit fatigued though initially heading out of the tent without poles or headlamp.
The first climb of lap 3 was death-climb-solid, though I felt surprisingly strong. The climbing legs fade-rate was minimal (thanks endless hill rep training). At this point I was thinking that maybe a sub 30hr finish was a possibility. Don’t get me wrong, the #1 objective was to complete the event in as good a state as I could manage. But a sub 30hr looked very achievable without risking anything.
About this time I figured I’d taken a bad turn and was ‘lost’. Not lost, ‘lost’, as I was still on the course as the markers attested. Only there was a junction with arrows pointing the wrong way and there appeared to be solid downhill when I still should have been climbing to Mt Horn. It would have been about 1am and I was definitely fatigued and was having trouble processing the situation. I could see headlamps on the parallel ridge to the North of me and way up high to the East of me.
As I mentioned earlier I had only really committed the first two laps to memory. I’d actually made a map for such an eventuality but misplaced in in the panic of packing on Thursday night when I discovered we had a morning flight rather than a midday flight (also resulting in a poor 4hr sleep that night – plus another poor Friday night sleep meant I was already well sleep deprived going into the event).
So I walked a bit of the three directions I could have taken. The only direction I had confidence in was backtracking down the hill (sigh, 1.5hr climb wasted). So I started back the way I came, then thought of calling Terry. Despite a rather poor description of my surroundings we concurred I’d missed a junction on the climb and was on another part of the course on the way to the finish. Rather than descending to the bottom of the climb he said if I just kept going up I’d be back on course.
So here I was, having wasted an hour dicking round, but still feeling physically and mentally strong. Though navigationally I was a bit shakey, double checking, second guessing every change in direction, no matter the course marking. Much like Tarawera, any thought of finish time disappeared and I went back to the finish the course ‘safely and confidently’ objective. While this killed any time related motivation, it probably made for a way more enjoyable experience. I ran when I felt like it, was still capable on the uphill, but almost felt like a lazy 60km. “I could run this bit, sure, but meh”.
Reaching TW again in the dark, they set me off on The Loop of Despair. Even in my casual state, it was aptly named. You backtrack and drop down a fair way then redo the 2nd half of The Death Climb. As it was early morning by now I kept looking up at Venus in the sky only to discover it was my next reflective course marker. This pattern kept going for an eternity. Luckily Snizzle the sock puppet was good company at this point, though she wasn’t saying very nice things about Terry.
After The Loop of Despair came The Water Race, but don’t be fooled by the innocent name. Runners I’d encounter on their way back from it said it was way worse than The Loop of Despair. But before we dropped down we had to re-climb the windy ridge to Leaning Rock. By now under a pre-dawn sky the wind had actually picked up. I’d be hunched over putting a big effort into moving in the right direction and then it’d be like a wave would break over your throwing you rather violently round. That’s gotta be at least 11 on the Beaufort scale (violent storm). On the way back down the headlamp finally needed a battery swap (after about 13.5hrs of burn time). Though there was precious little shelter up here, my hat had already been blown away and race number half blown off. I ended up lying in a ditch using my body to shelter everything changing battery. Choice adventuretime for sure!!
It was proper light by the time I got back from The Water Race to TW (it really wasn’t so bad). I had so much food I’d been sharing it with anyone around runners, volunteers, anyone. My calculation was on the much higher calorie burn rate of a 100km run. Going slower on a 100miler meant I was eating less. Otherwise my nutrition strategy was spot on, a mix of gels, peanut brownies, krispies, real gingernuts, and water on the fly. Nuts, muesli bars, chips, seaweed, chocolate milk, mini Whitakers peppermint chocolate bars, potatoes, pumpkin soup, R-Line electrolytes, and whatever else I could snaffle at the aid stations. Had crystalized ginger just in case of gastro issues, but nothing arose. Possibly my body stress level was low enough to prevent any gastro distress or maybe I was just lucky? I did rehearse nutrition a lot on the build up though.
The return back down to base was pretty uneventful, even the last hill, a nifty +500m climb 5km before the finish was comfortably knocked off. Unbelievably I was still climbing well after 32hrs. Saw Mal and Sal at the summit of the last climb too which was a boost. Then Victoria was waiting about 2km out from the finish to ‘run’ me in. Before I could get to her, there was the small matter of the last fence to cross. This one took a couple of attempts. I lost count of the number of fences we had to cross, there were a lot and they only got more difficult as the hours passed.
Sadly I didn’t give Victoria much of a run in, lots of walking, though running felt comfortable enough I just wasn’t sufficiently motivated. We did run the last 500m though. And that was it. Done. I was completely amazed to have done it without feeling like I was suffering for hours. I enjoyed it so much that I told Terry I want to do it again at the finish! Of course I was completely wacked, but not painfully so, more drained. I felt so, so much worse at the end of my first Tarawera 100km.I guess that was down to the training, mental preparation, and race strategy. But I didn’t even dream of completing it this well.
A final note on the gear, like nutrition, I’d rehearsed this plenty. I’d packed so food and drink were always easily available on the fly. Similarly clothing was selected for gearing up and down to the conditions mostly without have to take a pack off – beanie, buff, gloves, arm-warmers accessible on the fly too. I’d opted for a slightly smaller pack for compulsory gear with a voluminous race belt for food supplies and on/off layers. It was very warm down at base and cool up top, cold in the wind so I was forever adjusting layers.
The headlamp Petzl Nao even nearly when the whole distance on one battery. Also glad I’d taken clear glasses to keep wind/grit out of my eyes, they were magic. The shoe-gaiter (Altra Lone Peak 1.5) combo kept everything out, and rocks/stabby plants at bay. As expected the Black Diamond poles were fantastic on the climbs. Unfortunately I’d set the Ambit3 at max battery saving meaning it dropped about 10% of distance (I figure with the off track stuff I’d done about 165km?) though it gave a credible looking 11,300m climbing. I’d applied moisturiser the night before on any area I though chafing could be an issue, and reapplied lube every lap (including feet). The outcome was zero damage, no chafing, no blisters. So happy with the gear selection, made for an unbelievably comfortable 32hrs.
Felt better than Round Ruapehu for sure (esp. the not running out of food bit). So I expect good MEC representation at Northburn in coming years.