Preparing for Northburn as a 100 mile virgin

I entered the Northburn100 (miler) a couple of years back. Unfortunately they had an incident with a fire on the build-up to the 2015 edition and didn’t offer the 100 that year so I’ve had an extra year of terror just thinking about the thing. As a bonus, they’ve put that year to good use by adding a couple of thousand metres of vertical and an extra kilometre to the course.

So the mental state over the last couple of months has constantly alternated between excited anticipation, and the why? Why? Why did I enter? Part of the why is the trail-100-miler? Tick, aspect. Honestly if there were an easier trail 100 mile event in NZ I’d have entered it. At this point I’d actually feel pretty secure, happy even, going into an ‘ordinary’ 100 miler. But then Northburn isn’t very ordinary. I’ve stopped reading the race reports because they are a bit disturbing.

Breaking Northburn down there are some pretty clear requirements with respect to training and preparation. As far as I can tell the specifics of the event are: hills, endurance, hills, fatigue, hills, darkness, hills, rocky/stabby/uneven-terrain, hills, varied-climatic conditions, hills, nutrition/hydration, hills, load-carrying, hills, personal care, hills, and mental state. In the build-up I tried to cover off these as best I could within a 6 month average of 10hrs running a week (supplemented with fixie commuting and family hikes).

Hills: keeping a low-carbon family-friendly programme I largely resorted to local neighbourhood hills (lots of repeats of steep 40m and 80m climbs). Have managed just over a 2000m per week average since the start of October. The most vert I managed in a week was 5000m. Ideally I’d have hiked some big long climbs with a silly heavy pack but it never happened. Quite a lot of the hill work was power hiking between 500-1000 metres/hr, that’s gotta be good for me right? 10,000m of vert scares me, have no idea if I’ve done enough.

Endurance: Biggest run I managed was 15.5hrs on a +140km week. Took that big day really slow, carried full gear/water load, and felt like I had a fair few hours still in me at the end (though was only around 3000m of vert). Got in a good number of +8hr runs, and some 100km weeks. Recovery after these big runs has been great, even managed some solid sessions in the week following them. Pretty happy with endurance then.

Fatigue/Darkness: A Rangitoto Island Dusk till Dawn hill set tested my night ops. I actually rather like being out and about in the dark, often wish sunrise was a bit delayed on early morning sessions. Plus I’ve got a headlamp that’s plenty powerful and good for +10:30hrs without having to change batteries (almost feels like cheating). Also tried out a 40min power nap on Rangi after 7hrs on the feet, while I didn’t actually sleep, and restarting was an unpleasant experience I felt great once I warmed up again. I’m also getting the kids to throw a couple of totems in the TW (half lap) drop bag as a bit of lift if/when things go psych-dark. No fear here, psych/electromagnetic darkness spectrum covered.

Rocky/Stabby/Uneven-Terrain: Mostly past experience and gear selection here. With most of the recent running occurring in confines of Auckland city, Rangitoto and Tarawera were main forays on the trail. My first choice shoe-gaiter combo was taken on the family hike around Lake Waikaremoana in January and they worked out great (same combo as Rangitoto and Tarawera). In summary, confident with the terrain

Nutrition/Hydration: Have paid a bit more attention to eating/drinking during the build-up, especially on long runs. Seems to have worked pretty well and have been able to eat solidly on the long low and slow outings using a combination of sports nutrition and normal food. Planning on carrying mainly gels and Farmbake Peanut Brownies, plus a few other solid (savoury) snacks. Drop bags will have a various other treats in them. I’m calling it the Brent 30hr gel chow down.

Varied-Climatic Conditions: Been a bit tricky this one, as the summer has been hot, humid, and rather wet at times. Tell the truth I’m not at my best in the midday heat when I’m fully loaded. Doesn’t look like it’ll be as hot and humid down there though – overnight lows of between 6-8C at base, who knows what’ll be on the tops in the middle of the night. At this point it’s looking like rain is threatening. Was looking forward to a gorgeous Central Otago sunset/sunrise but prefer rain to baking heat.

Load Carrying: Done all of my long runs and a fair number of hill sets fully loaded. The compulsory gear list means carrying a couple of kg of water and quite a bit of bulk. I’ve played with packing options a bit and current setup seems to work well for the kind of running (walking) I’ll be doing at Northburn. Been running with wizard sticks for the past few months, they are great on the combo of climbing with a load. Got options here, no real cause for concern.

Personal Care: Look after the feet, tend to any chafing early, carry sunscreen and toilet paper. Changes of clothes and shoes at base. Common issues covered then, though keeping on top of chafing is a nagging concern.

Mental state: +30hrs in trying conditions? How do you prepare for that? I’m going with the ‘what would DKR do?’ approach. Three runners that often come to mind when I need a bit of inspiration or fortitude are Dawn Tuffery, Ruby Muir, and Kim Allen (DRK listed, of course, in no particular order). At which point you say, wow, that’s enlightened, and not weird at all for a man in his mid 40’s. Yeah, yeah, I could throw in Mal Law but his inspiration membership is already fully subscribed. I think I can work through any issues of resolve or inner darkness, and have a powernap on hand for hallucinations.

Finally, to put it all together on the day(s) I’ve got a plan. The plan being designed to get me to the finish, hopefully only experiencing one sunset.

Race, ahem, event-survival plan: This is pretty straight forward four point plan.

  1. Limit running to the easy terrain on the first lap (ie. cap effort)
  2. Don’t stop unless you’ve got a task that requires stopping (a nap is technically a task)
  3. Keep on top of nutrition/hydration.
  4. Mantra: belief, resolve, endure, entry-fee

Prediction: I’ll finish. I’ll cry at some point. I’ll want to withdraw soon after. Those gels are going to get nasty. But I think I’ve done enough to finish.


GPS, Statistics, and Philosophy

Here’s a scenario which might already be familiar to some of you. You enter a rugged trail run event with your buddies and everyone is GPS’ed up to their eyeballs (speaking of which when is someone going to sort a heads up display for me). When you all finish and compare distances you find a fair bit of variation and none of you record the advertised distance.

So which distance is the true one?

  1. The event advertised distance
  2. The distance indicated by a topo map
  3. The longest of any of the GPS recorded distances
  4. An average of a bunch of GPS recorded distances
  5. None of the above

If you selected 5. None of the above, you are likely to be the winner.

Being a trail run, the event organiser is unlikely to have measured the course three times by wheel, as they do in official road races, or by any other survey method for that matter. Which means either they calculated it via a map or from previous GPS tracks themselves.

Topo maps are horrible for measuring true trail distance due to the 1:50k scale being hopelessly small. The mapped tracks smooth-out countless kilometres of twisting trail. Though at least you know the measured distance will be short.

So what about GPS? In testing the accuracy of a number of current and past running GPS watches in NZ trail conditions, you are forced to make a choice as to which results represent the best outcome. No GPS is 100% accurate and all have a distribution of variability with respect to distance. The question is what should this distribution look like? Some models play it conservative in tough conditions and make sure they never exceed the true distance traveled, and others have bit more freedom and measure short some days and long others.

Everyone can agree that the less variability the better (put another way, the more predictable the better). But if a watch had more variability, recording say between 90-110% of the true distance but coming out with a long term average of 100%. Is that better than a watch that averages 99% accurate with a very tight range of 97% – 99.9%?

Turns out it looks like the best performing current high end trail running GPS tend to aim towards the latter – to try and make every run as (predictably) accurate as they can even if it means they will never get to 100% over the long term. But you know with a bit more certainty what the distance was on that day.That’s certainly my preference, even if the wide varying models look better by some simple statistical measures (eg. long term average).

So where’s that leave the original scenario? Well if your sample of GPS models are all current high performers, averaging isn’t going to help much as they are all short. But the longest might be close. On the other hand if you are all sporting old school models and GPS conditions weren’t too bad, and the constellations were aligned, the average could feasibly be close, but don’t count on any one of them. If your comparison group includes both types, give up. The truth is it was a great day running and who really cares.

The results of our actual GPS trail tests are rather interesting. We were certainly surprised by a few of the results and what to steer clear of… Will be progressively posting them in the coming weeks.

Ps. same patterns seen in total ascent/descent data as distance, only the margins are somewhat greater.

Free NZ Topo Trail Running Maps (Beta Testers Needed)

So estimating how far and how long a real trail run is is difficult. I’ve got into loads of trouble for underestimating the time I figured I’d be out. Partly it was ego (surely I’m fast enough to knock that out in a couple of hours!), but partly is was the poor quality maps and tools at hand. The best solution I found was on GPSies which was based on Open Street Map (OSM), which was accompanied by autorouting, meaning no more hand tracing, and included elevation profiles to boot.

Unfortunately the quality/completeness of the OSM data wasn’t always up to task and autorouting only gets updated infrequently. This really became evident when I tried to help Mal Law plan his High Five-O Challenge. Tracks weren’t there for the autorouting (ie. OSM based maps), and hand tracing LINZ maps gives a margin of error of 20% (and the displayed tracks aren’t even current). Initially, I thought, I can do better than that for Mal, then I thought if I’m going to do it for him, I’ll/we’ll do it for everyone.

That’s where you all come in. I’ve figured out the process to convert OSM data and LINZ Contours into Garmin maps which you can use on you PC/Mac/Garmin GPS (for free unless you want to feed me beer). I’m updating OSM tracks/trails and other features as best I can but I only run so many trails. So what I need you all to do is install the maps on your PC/Mac/Garmin, tell me if it works (esp. autorouting and elevation profiles), and then give me your GPX traces of trails where the map is rubbish. I can then update the maps and republish as frequently as I can be arsed.

You can also grab yourself an account at and start editing the tracks and features directly if you are keen but be sure to observe convention and good editing practice (starting here is a good idea

Anyway you can install my maps following the rubbish instructions here:
Garmin and Basecamp Map and instruction

At the moment the map looks something like this on Basecamp (the Garmin computer app)
Round Ruapehu Screenshot

Re-re-re-restarting running (a woeful tale)

Been a while since I’ve posted, in part due to a lack of running events (did anyone write up the beer-foot invitational – it was so long ago).

2013 was a bit hit and miss after Kaweka, only one Xterra and one destination trail run (an aborted Ruapehu RTM). Mileage actually stayed pretty solid through to the end of July and then it all started coming apart.

A cruisy 3hr mixed road/trail run in early August did some damage to the right leg (don’t remember exactly what now). Training restarted in earnest on the last week of August. As I recall at this stage a goal was to target a fast time at the Auckland Marathon.

The restart (#1) started well and mileage was comfortably increased through to mid-September when the constellation of troubles really began. First a past mysterious nerve pain started reasserting itself to the point I was sent off for ultrasound and blood tests. Nothing discovered, and it faded of its own accord over the following months. Then a hacking cough that even took me off the bike as it became painful to breathe, putting me out for nearly four weeks. Auckland was out.

Another restart (#2) mid-October, four runs into which saw an ill-disposed MEC sprint training session pull a quad(!?). Another couple of weeks off. The West Coast was written off about now.

Restart (#3) at the beginning of November was going very well, just in time for the Kaweka Mountain Marathon in February which I had an early-bird entry for. Mileage was comfortably increasing until I hit my first rest week in the last week of November, when another cruisy 2hr mixed trail/road run saw the right leg fall off again.

Unfortunately the opportunity to fill in with a bit more cycling was also somewhat crushed at this point by a well-timed bike crash. Following a complete two week stand down training restart (#4) commenced on the 16th of December.

Since then, thankfully, everything has been dreamy. Have managed a good couple of training blocks, and so long as I avoid road running in shoes my right leg seems happy.

However, comparing the same periods over the last couple of years I’m way down the mileage leading in to the Kaweka (let alone Tarawera). Given the limitations of time to build anything decent by way of endurance up by Feb 1st I figured I’d go super specific and concentrate on doing time at +20% gradient climbs/descents.

The Kaweka Mountain Marathon is definitely an inspirational to run, if not somewhat frightening to prepare for. Good motivation for all those restarts then. So how’s my confidence level? Actually not too bad, no I don’t currently have the endurance for a +7hr run, but last year there was a lot of time spent on those +20% grades (mostly  walking) – which I do feel better prepared for. My pick then is that 2014 me will be pretty competitive against 2013 me. I’ll post back with reality in the first week of Feb…

Morning on the Omanawanui (Whatapu), a new year dawns…

(Long) Way Back Home

Some things come easy, other stuff takes a bit more effort.

  • Learning that your big days leading into an ultra aren’t training so much as a celebration of fitness and opportunity to get some scenic adventure time = easy
  • Pacing yourself to get through those big adventures = easy
  • Giving your wife/family realistic times to complete new routes = difficult
  • Estimating distance and true elevation of new routes from Topo50 (1:50,000) map series = difficult
  • Navigating for the directionally challenged = difficult

Looking for a final big trail day before Tarawera, the invites and request for route selection went out. I was looking for something in the 60-70km  range, shady trails, mostly runnable, within 1hr of Auckland, and just over 2000m of climbing. Surely not too much to ask of Auckland’s Regional Parks. After some vague references I picked a route in the Hunua’s, cross referenced it from previous (limited) expeditions, the Topo50 map, and the Park Map. Really thought I had it covered, detailed tracing of tracks from topo maps showed the full route as a 65km outing and ~2500m climbing, the large majority of which was to be found in the first half of the course. Perfect. The only downside was the fact that we would be spending much of the day on the ridges in the summer sun.

Got a couple of Westies, by way of Adam Lovel and Nathan Bycroft  keen on exploring the Hunua’s and some wise words from the locals. Moreover, the route I had planned had multiple cutback options from the full 65km route dropping 10km and 15km and some final climbs. With an anticipated 0630 start I confidently told Victoria I’d be back at the car at 1430 with an outside time of 1630, figuring we could full manage exit time with the cutbacks.

Woke up in less than optimal running condition following some neighbourly socialising on the Friday night. My super-domestique-TUM-pacer kindly loaned the transportation on the day by way of a rapid transit Volvo, though to little benefit with a rather predictable 20min late start into a glorious summer morning. All was going splendidly for first 1:15hr when we unwittingly cruised past the trail that dropped off the ridge we were on. 30 minutes later backtracking along marked but unmapped trails we retraced the junction with the trail sign hidden well out of sight 20 metres down the bank. What kind of trail builder would spend $$$ on stairs down a stunning  250m bush descent but hide the top junction?

No matter, it was all going swimmingly, pace was even, conditions perfect, though we had a minor detour due to Kauri die-back. A nice water stop, refuel at Mangatangi Reservoir picnic/info area. Those little setbacks were a trivial 50 minutes, we had a mighty two hour reserve and cutback options to meet our spousal [made up word?] commitments. Everything here on in went even better than planned, trails were more runnable as we headed north (as planned!), water was (thankfully) to be found on some ridge campsites and our pace didn’t feel overly slow for what we were covering.

Happy snaps were even there to be had for the planned route…

Early Daze

View from Kohukohunui

Bagging the highpoint of the Hunua’s at Kohukohunui (688m) Adam mentioned something absurd, like “Only 10km to go” on the basis of the agreed cutback option (due to the earlier time loss). Looking over to where the road exited way off in the distance this was plainly ridiculous, yet the logged distance did suggest we had a minor trot to meet the Topo50 mapped distance. Clearly something was wrong.  A few checks of the map and we plotted our expedited exit along the unexciting forestry roads trading a little extra distance for climbing and slower tracks. Speaking for the others here, I think we were all feeling it by this stage with moving time of 7:30hrs with a now unknown distance to go (estimating it at this point was far too difficult).

Fortunately the company was in good spirits and we were fading at about the same rate (though I suspect I was the weaker link). What I did have to keep Victoria and the Volvo crowd happy was a nifty SPOT satellite messenger/tracker device which was put to good use notifying of changes in plan and delays. While it worked well overall, not sure the device was happy sending updates from the dense Hunua bush. At least we were secure knowing that they wouldn’t call out a SAR crew if we were a couple of hours late.

And late we were, despite using a planned cutback option which both shortened the distance and elevation involved the shortened day was actually longer than the anticipated full route at 66km and between 3100-3200m of climbing. On the flip side, we got some great unplanned extra time on feet, the day was glorious and without serious incident (due to good risk mitigating navigation decisions), explored some beautiful new trails, and Adam nailed his first ultra ‘event’. Following up 2 days post run, I’m feeling fantastic and rather excited about the prospect of Tarawera this year…

Now, can anyone actually give me an actual route in the Auckland region that meets the criteria I was seeking: 60-70km, runnable trail, 2000-2500m climbing?

Abel Tasman Inland Photo Journal

While the main MEC crew were burning up the roads of Onehunga I was down in Abel Tasman National Park with a free run pass (friends we were down with were in the official Coastal Classic run).

I used my pass to run an out an back from Marahau up the inland track to a turn around when time was up. Made it as far as Porters Rock. Gorgeous running conditions, though the inland tracks were a little more ‘backcountry’ than I had anticpated making for slow progress (many +10min/km).

Course can be seen here

I’ll only be a couple of hours, promise. In the words of Nixon “I was not lying. I said things that later on seemed to be untrue”
Start of the climb away from coast track
Looking across to Adele Island
Trail spotting going up
Log, log, it’s wet, it’s slippery, it’s wood
Proof I wasn’t alone up there
Tussocky goodness
Looking back towards Richmond Range (?)
Downhill trail spotting

Best Laid Plans

Shaping up to be a busy sunny season, at least according to my calendar. A nice mix of old and new and some frightening implications for training and sleep (unless I quit work, family, or my social calendar). Of course all of these are verbal entries at this stage…

Regardless, I’m going to finally have to work out how to divvy up cycling and running into a meaningful, enjoyable training ‘schedule’, ie. a haphazard collection of social outings, adventures, and solo events.

So chronologically ordered I’m up for:

  1. Hunua Xterra (2nd Sept)
  2. Abel Tasman Coastal Classic (22nd Sept – if that free ticket comes through)
  3. Whaka100 MTB – 100km fixed gear division (20th Oct)
  4. K2 Road- 200km fixed gear division (27th Oct)
  5. West Coaster Adventure Marathon (24th Nov)
  6. Taupo Half Ironman Ride/Run only (8th Dec)
  7. Summer Solstice All-road-trail Ride (21st Dec)
  8. Kaweka Mountain Marathon (2nd Feb)
  9. Tarawera Ultra 100km (16th Mar)

Was hoping to throw in the Huia69 mud assault (a variation of the Hillary Trail) and a self supported Round the Mountain (ie Ruapehu) run but things looking rather full already.

Now who’s going to keep me company here? I want names, I want proof of entry, I want fun times!