After the usual nervous wait in the port-a-loo queue with what initially wasn’t going to be enough time, then was just enough time, then was absolutely fine, I was amongst the 150+ mountain runners listening to Terry’s last words before a 6AM start to the event that you don’t race, but rather just survive. The wild and hilarious briefing the night before had set the tone for an adventure.
I picked up a free entry to the Northburn 100km through my Wild Things membership (#itpaystobeVIP) and the event date lined up nicely with submitting my thesis on New Year’s eve before getting stuck into a good three month training block. This was going to be a big step up for me, and would be my first ultra race!
Training went well, allowing me to tick off some great runs injury free on the way to the start line, including a 60km crater rim – Te Ara Pataka mission with good company and a bad stomach, a good honest crack at the CAP uphill only challenge (that I like to think I invented) and back to back 2000m+ long runs in the best hills in town. No complaints from me about the build-up, now it was time to deliver!
With this being my first ultra, and given how brutal the Northburn course is, it was tough to set goals heading in. I eventually set my sights on the ABC combo: A – sub 18 hour finish, B – sub 20 hour finish, and C – finish. There was no lower option available in my mind.
Heading out in the dark with a lot of company I was focussed on coming in off the first 50km loop still feeling comfortable. Patience was going to be key. The first home loop in the dark went well, staying slow and unable to look, and therefore think, too far ahead with the limited visual range provided by my headlamp. The comments of “first hill done!” from one of the marshals near the end of this 5km loop almost made me laugh out loud. The hills had not begun!
Into the main section of the first loop we were soon on a steady climb and I deployed Kevin’s poles. Getting into a rhythm on the climbs is one of my strengths so I was happy enough to keep my head down and get on with it, patiently knowing there was a lot of up to come. I’d had little to drink before the water stop at Middleton’s, so carried on straight into the notorious fence line climb. A good honest steep section, but short and sharp. As a fan of the pipeline climb at Christchurch’s Bridle Path, I was unphased.
Continuing on the climb there was a bit of sidling and an interesting section of mossy, stream-side terrain. Around here I took the chance to fill a soft flask directly from the waters that Terry had promised were some of the freshest you could get. Quenching my thirst drinking that fresh steam water, high up above any stock on a working station near the most inland region of New Zealand, I was not disappointed!
Getting on with the job there were soon some flatter sections to navigate. These provided a bit of a lesson at Northburn. The elevation profile isn’t everything. I would have liked to pick up the pace more here, but the terrain was not kind to this idea. Uneven, and movable under foot, it looked like there would be no fast sections at Northburn! Reaching the aid station at the top of loop 1 was a nice way point to check off. An extended descent beckoned after a quick refill. Shortly after the aid station I passed the first photography point and you can see the classic change in demeanour that comes as you realise you’re being observed in the photos below! Notice how one pole is stowed haha.
More mossy madness awaited, followed by a switch to gravel 4WD tracks. This was a welcome change and an opportunity to spin out the legs a bit, picking up the pace. Not wanting to puncture a quad, I was weary of my pace here and staying at or above 5 min/km seemed to be a good personal strategy to stay below the red line. This descent wound on and on for around 13 kms before the mirror aid station, which directed us out on the final 12 kilometres of loop 1, known as the loop of deception. Terry named this loop due to the deceptively high perceived difficulty of the short climb, after having just completed a much bigger one. Luckily, head-down-getting-on-with-it-grinding-of-hills is something I had often practiced.
God-damn that last gravel section winding (eventually) back into the camp site was a test of patience! It was starting to heat up significantly now and it was time to play it smart and keep your cool. I was passed right near the end of loop 1 by Mark Rigby, who would turn out be a great support later in my race.
Being crew-less made the loop 1 transition a bit of an anti-climax! I handed over my tracker for a battery change and headed over to my tent, anxiously going through everything I would need to stay sorted on the second half of the race. With the tracker back, it was time to hit the road and after an awkward lost wander around the tents at the campsite, I was pointed in the right direction. Immediately into the biggest climb of the day, during the hottest part of the day, it was time to settle and find a rhythm. I caught back up to Mark somewhere around here as we wound our way up to the last water point available before the top of the big climb at leaning rock.
Life’s funny because I was initially thinking I would not be very interested in chatting during the race, and overhearing some people chatting away while running along earlier in the day had slightly annoyed me, but it was great to have company like Mark. As an experienced miler, he had just the right attitude about breaking up the course and his insights on the approaching sections helped me to set small goals and milestones to tick off along the way. This section of the course up to leaning rock was one of the toughest. It was steep, it was hot, and the legs already had loop 1 in them. I think these metres were the toughest.
I was starting to think a bit more about my time goals, and a departure from TW at the 12 hour mark would put me in a position to make it happen. I thought several times during the climb that I might be able to create a buffer there, but the climb, like pretty much the whole course at Northburn, was always a bit slower than you might hope. Mark and I put on a good smile for the photographer on the last dash up to leaning rock, and left TW about bang on time. The drop bag was another anti-climax in the end, as I opted out of the shoe change option I had prepared and wasn’t particularly hungry at this stage.
I was struck a few times by the good spirits and kindness of the marshals out on remote parts of the course. The thought of waiting out there endlessly didn’t seem like the most fun to me, but they were always friendly and helpful. One particular highlight was asking about what was in a mysterious snap lock container, and uncovering some delicious fancy fruitcake!
OK! 6 hours to get home after leaving TW to make my A goal! The waypoints I had in mind were: 2hours to get down the descent and back up to Mt Horn, 2 hours to descend Mt. Horn and get around to the Brewery Creek aid station, and 2 hours to polish off the much hyped and lamented Pylon Track. With Mark facing his own issues, I was encouraged to push ahead during the descent. This was another case of trying not to punish the quads too much while also making use of the gravity assist. This game was starting to form some sort of strange self-induced punishment towards the end of this particular descent. When you start and finish at the same point, 6000 metres up means 6000 metres down. I was starting to feel them.
Bottoming out the descent was a joyous moment and I was right back into grinding a hill. This climb to Mt. Horn was pretty steep and the poles were really paying dividends now as I got going and made good time, despite all the work already done. Could I get to Mt. Horn before dark? I was pushing on to find out. As the light faded it was nice to enjoy that strange, oddly alluring shade that the sky can take at the end of the day. What a special place to be. For all the bullshit you think about in everyday life, I hope I can remember moments of adventure and peace like this forever.
I zoned out a little while changing my headlight batteries, continuing to hike up the hill, but fully focussed on removing those fiddly little triple A batteries. A few metres gained without really feeling them! Coming over Mt. Horn I had to get the headlamp going and start a slow descent. After reaching the aid station I overheard the marshal say “103 at 20:20” as he recorded my bib number and the time. 20:20! That would put me 20 minutes behind schedule. I ran an extra 50 metres after this aid station, since I initially forgot my poles! Time was on my mind.
Unfortunately it was a slow descent next up. The dry long grass flattened to form a route was at times exactly as slippery as Terry had described. No point doing anything silly. Mark had given me some hope about the pace of the traverse to Brewery Creek after the descent and the Pylon Track that followed. 20 minutes wasn’t an insurmountable barrier, and besides, the three sections I’d divided the rest of the course into were a bit arbitrary and by no means equal. After a short stumble off course, ended by a passing headlamp pointing out the correct route to me, I pushed on slowly down the descent and eventually made it to the traverse. Time was looking a bit better and this section was pretty runnable. I say runnable. By this stage I was pretty tired, so some of it was run. The course was well marked, but of course it’s still harder to see at night than during the day. Upon seeing the next marker after any brief periods of uncertainty, I couldn’t help but think “Good on ya Terry!”
It just went on and on. My watch had kept a good record all day and had added maybe 1-2 kms onto the actual distance. I was expecting to get to Brewery Creek, labelled as 89km at around 90-91 km according to my watch. It was around 93 on my device by the time I got there, and believe me the ‘extra’ couple of kilometres felt like a long time, as both my patience, and my anticipated buffer on my sub 18 hour finish schedule, were chipped away. After a final steep gravel descent, here we were. Another headlamp arrived right behind me, and I looked up to see a friendly familiar face in Mark.
Now it was the final push and I wanted to stay with Mark through the much hyped late race undulation of the Pylon Track. I had a good amount of time to reach my goal by now, but having company at this stage was tremendous. Continuing on, I was starting to think more and more about my sub 18 hour finish and how great things had gone on the whole. Mark was finishing loop 2 strong, and it got increasingly harder to stay with him. The descents were particularly hurting me now. Something in the back of my left leg that had been ‘tight but OK’ for a chunk of loop 2 was starting to get a little painful.
We passed the very last aid station and their proclaims of ‘3 ks to go and you’re finished!’ were truly comforting. One of Mark’s supporters met us with a couple of ks to go and we enjoyed the extra company before getting back to a jog for the last kilometre heading into camp. Mark turned away to complete his transition before heading back out for the final loop of the miler, leaving me to cruise through the dark camp and crush my goal of making it home before midnight. Has pumpkin soup ever tasted so good? I really don’t think so.
What’s next? The step up to 100k on a hilly course at Northburn was an epic challenge and worthy goal for the summer, but I must say I’m looking forward to crushing some shorter challenges when I’m back up to full speed. I’d love to have a crack at the ultimate local brag – the lava flow CR, and the new website for the K3 has got me super excited for my upcoming trip to Europe!