Northburn 100 - Part 3 - The last loop

This is a race report in three parts. Part one is here. Part two is here.

I don't think I slept at all. I nodded off a few times but I was not warm enough and there was always something making a noise. I got up about 20 minutes later and started to get my things together to head out again. I drank some coffee that Gemma had put in a thermos for me 15 hours earlier. It was still warm. I got up and was waiting to get directions onto the third loop but was held up slightly as she had to wait and record the winner coming in. Now I had not heard of this guy before and I assumed that all of the "elite" runners would have been at a more pedestrian 100k race in the north island the week before but 22 hours on that course is an astonishing time. Not sure how much he has raced outside New Zealand but he could be one to look out for.

When I first arrived here on Friday for registration I saw this sign that said "loop 3 60km". It was going to be a significant moment of the race getting past that bit. I was really pleased that at no point yet I considered quitting, even at the warm cosy end of loop tent. This bodes well for another looped run I would like to complete one day. It was just gone 4am, I was back out on the track again where I was promised the biggest climb so far.

It started with steep switchbacks similar to what I had just come down and then joined the uphill bit of the loop of despair. I thought this would take 5 hours and that would include a sunrise.

I was tired in many ways and stopped a few times to regain myself, usually after stumbling on something. The clouds in the sky were keeping us warmer in the night and cooler in the day but I wished they would leave so I could see the stars and the milky way. I had looked forward to spending a few minutes lying down and looking up at how utterly insignificant I and everything I have ever done or will do is. This always comforts me.

It was still dark as I approached TW for the third time. The only thing concerning me at this point was the location of those cows. They were not in the same place as before, I hesitantly scanned my light around but was careful not to focus it too much. I did see them, behind me. They had moved and were way down the field, still staring at me. Quite glad I did not have that burger now.

I got to TW in around 5 hours and was pleased with that progress. I didn't think there was much up and down left and the wind had died down a bit. The next section was a short 4k to the leaning rock, heading back down then up again. This was into a headwind again and quite difficult but ok. On getting there I was told to head back down another path where I would see another marshal after about 3k.

I could jog some of it but most of it was too steep for me and I had to do a power stumble instead. I was still going faster than I had been for a while, looking out for a car that signified that 3k was done, doing that retarded thing where you look at the time and try to work out how fast you are going and extrapolate how long it would take to get to the end. More than an hour passed and I knew it could not be 5k, it just couldn't. Every switchback I expected a car and a smiling face but it would not come. For the first time in the race I thought I might have gone the wrong way, I stopped and looked back and saw far into the distance at two runners following me, much much higher up.

The car and marshal finally appeared and directed me on an 8k out and back along the side of a mountain. The trail was a bit easier but the wind was still harsh. I got to see the people just ahead of me and just behind too and was surprised that I was close to many. With all these switchbacks and corners and darkness I had not seen many people in the last 24 hours.

The 8k came and went fairly quickly, now it was time to head down a little further and then back up to TW, the last big climb of the race. I wasn't quite prepared for the "water race" though.

I am not a farmer and have no reason to what a water race is. Its a horizontal irrigation system that works its way around mountains. Instead of going back up and down we ran right through this thing. There was no trail at all, I saw the posts marking the way but there was no path. It was like Barkley, in fact no it was worse than that, there was no ground. With every step I was taken by a paranoia of my feet falling through the earth. Its was not obvious what was ground and what was air. Some of the grass looked like it was suspended. I am sure it was not as bad as I make out, maybe I was tired but I quickly lost my sense of humour at this bit, it was horrible. There was about a mile of this and then a walk on a ridge that required a rope to stay on it. Who would do this 80 odd miles into a mountain race? I was not amused.

I was having difficulty with my temperature, very cold when I just wore a t shirt but roasting when I put the jacket on. My neck was warm and my head was fuzzy. I was falling asleep on my feet. After the rope ridge there was the small matter of the climb back up to TW. I debated with myself as to whether to tell the medic I felt both hot and cold. I had not quite felt like this before, not that I can remember everything. Dr Goolgle afterwards says it could be Pregnancy, menopause, diabetes, poor diet. I reckon the last one. I fueled for this race on soup, coke, bombay mix, cashews and jet planes. Kiwi's will know what jet planes are. They are awesome.

The wind was at it's worst now, pushing us all back. I swear they moved this checkpoint to a different place each time, no amount of climbing seemed to get us up there. I could not remember exactly which mountain it was I was heading to the top of and inevitably it was the furthest one again. The whole climb was on an exposed mountain side with vicious wind.

I was going so slow I was ready to quit. It was going to be 3pm before I got to the top of this, there was about 25k of downhill after that and if that was going to be as slow as previous downhills I thought I'd be finishing in the early hours of the morning, perhaps nor even making the 48 hour cut off. I was very despondent at this stage and not really looking past just collapsing in a horsebox and being asked to be carted home.

As we got onto the last climbing straight there were about 4 of us getting battered by the wind. A marshal Andy ran down handing out walking poles. I laughed as he offered them to me, no thanks I said. My dignity already took a hit with the tights.

Lisa then came down, taking photos and walked beside me a little. "come on James, you've done tougher than this".

If I were able to get out some breath just to respond I would have said "I don't think I have".

Of all the big hard climbs I have done in the big hard races this would certainly be up there. Sangas pass, Townes pass, Bovine, Rat Jaw. This one really broke me and made me think that finishing was impossible. I gave myself a maximum of 15 minutes at the top before I was going to descent again and called Gemma to say that I may be some time.

There is a lesson here. If you estimate your finishing times by using a "bottom up" approach of taking how long you have done certain sections and then multiplying you are going to get it wrong. I was here. Not only was I doing the wrong calculations but I was also doing the calculations wrong. I was running with a few others who all seemed in a good state and moving at the same speed as me and with the intention of getting finished before dark. Surely that meant that I was going to too? Instead of trying to work out how fast I was going I should just be able to look outside and see that others around me seemed to be moving OK and they intended to make it.

I spoke to a marshall at the checkpoint who said I only had 23k left and that it was about 3 hours to the next station "Brewery". I set out at around 3pm and hoped to get there in the 6 hours that they said. I was in good spirits again but falling asleep on my feet. I texted Gemma to say I was on my way back down and hopefully back before sunset. She said she was going to meet me at Brewery. I was looking forward to this. The Northburn Station produces the merino wool that makes icebreaker clothes you might wear. There should be a barcode on them so if you can scan it you can see whether the wool came from Northburn Station. Recently they branched out into producing wine (which Gemma tells me is very very good). I didn't however know that they were also making beer. I was looking forward to this Brewery.

I jogged a bit down the windy winding path. It was getting cooler. The noises of the evening piped up, the birds and the crickets. I really should be on a patio in Wanaka drinking a beer and waiting on a BBQ. Instead I was trying to force my eyes open to get to this brewery. I escaped a sheep stampede as they got scared by me and tried to run into another field. We were told that sheep sometimes try to run away and run into you but not to worry because they are very soft. I still didn't fancy getting put out of the race by a sheep though. That gave me a kick that lasted about 10 minutes. I tried sodcasting on my phone too, blaring out a tinny version of Kashmir but that was not doing it for me. I figured I would have to go to sleep at some stage but wanted to get as much as I could do in the daylight as possible.

My mind was playing tricks on me with the rocks. I was looking out now for a building and every single rock seemed to look like a nice building with a welcoming door and smoke coming out of the chimney. This was like the ascent up the Whitney Portal in Badwater where all the rocks were coming alive and threatening to eat me, only these rocks looked like welcoming homes, except when I got right up close and they just looked like rocks.

About 2.30 later I thought that the Brewery must be just aroung the next corner. I then saw Gemma walking the other way with what looked like a large bottle of coke. She then walked behind another rock and took ages to come back out which made me wonder whether I had actually seen her in the first place. Indeed she did appear back around the rock with lots of coke. I necked a load of it and was informed that "Brewery" was just around the corner and somewhat heartbreakingly that "Brewery" was just the name of a creek and there was no beer making place at all.

I got over it though. I felt more awake as soon as the Coke hit my insides. The chap in the car told me that it was 10k to go and this was the 10k he and many others around that weekend do as an "easy 10". He pointed out a penninsula in the distance as said that is the point I am aiming for. It didn't look far at all and I was quite pleased. Unfortunately I forgot that the Romans never made it as far as New Zealand. Bloody Romans.

If you want to know what Kiwis mean by an "easy 10" there is a race in the UK that is quite similar, it's called the Knacker Cracker. Though there were no more mountains it was still up and down and side to side. I kept that penninsula in my sight apart from times when I seemed to be moving in the opposite direction to it. These farm tracks winded in and out and all about. I kept the two guys ahead in sight (one was a pacer which I didn't find out till later). Gemma came out to see me again just before it got dark. I didn't manage to finish before the sun came down but I was close.

This was the first race I had run into two sun rises and two sun sets. That was pretty awesome. After 97 miles I saw a familiar thing for the first time, a stile. Here we could not open the gates we had to climb over them, they are about a meter high. After climbing over about 50 of these and worrying about whether I'd get cramp while wedged on one and having to go through the embarassement of getting rescued while straddling a gate I wondered why there were not more of these. It seems that the race organisers have an evil sense of humour putting one of these after 97 miles.

I walked at the end, my feet were mashed. I felt blisters everywhere. Gemma told me about a sandwich that my new mother in law had made me. It's got steak, butter, mayo, mustard and onions. I salivated at the thought as was looking forward to getting in down my neck at the end. I was just looking forward to the end now. It was almost the longest I have ever spend on my feet in a race, finishing in just over 39 hours it was only 20 minutes short of what I did at Badwater. I ran though the line and lay down, describing the race as "wonderfully horrible".

It was not over though, as soon as I entered the tent I was told by the medic that I had to stay on my feet for another 15 minutes to reduce the risk of post exercise exhaustion. I felt pretty good by that point but did what he said and after 100 miles of mountains I was doing a few laps of the gazebo. Tom my father in law came up with a beer and the medic frowned, "not until you have drank at least twice that in water or electrolytes). In the end I only had one sip shortly before crashin in bed.

We were told that this was going to be the hardest thing we had done. It was not far off. I am not good at going up or down, particularly down. I think the finishing time of 22 hours was remarkable (he is a 7h 100k runner). I know I could have gone hours faster if I was able to run down hill, and carried about 10kg less belly.

If this race were a 4 hour flight from the UK I'd be here every year, it was incredible. The support was amazing, there was never any chance of getting lost, the organisers push so hard for a safe but really tough race and that is what they got. The people who helped out were amazing. Rachel and Emma manned the comms for 40 hours without sleep. A chap went up for a 4 hour shift at TW and came back 28 hours later. Virginia Winstone finished in just under the cut off, showing a level of determination that most don't have. I really really loved this race and hope to be back in NZ soon to do this again.

Thank you everyone for putting on this gruesome race. Hope to see you next year...


How this compares to others in terms of time.

Badwater 2010 - 153 miles -  39.5 hours

Northburn 2013 - 100 miles - 39 hours

GUCR 2009 - 145 miles - 37.5 hours

Spartathlon 2009 - 153 miles - 35 hours

Spartathlon 2012 - 153 miles - 34 hours

Spartathlon 2010 - 153 miles - 33.5 hours

GUCR 2008 - 145 miles - 30.5 hours

Trans Gran Canaria 2011 - 80 miles - 23.5 hours