Gemma and I were about to go sky diving.
I said to Gemma "we should... You know... Before we jump out of a plane. Just in case we die".
"Nah, don't be silly" she reassured. "We are not going to die skydiving. We'll definitely do it before your race though".
It was Gemma who told me about this race. Only an hours drive from where we will be staying. Perfect, I signed up without looking at the details. I mean, how hard can it be if I have never heard of it? The details were quite sobering though, 100 miles and over 8000m of climbing. I had accidentally signed up to the UTMB, and I discovered this about 3 weeks beforehand.
I didn't know many things about New Zealand before I went.
It has two main islands
Lord of the Rings was filmed there
There are 17 sheep for every person
They don't like getting confused with Australians
Rolf Harris is their most famous person
Some things I wish I had known before going out there.
New Zealand has more mountains than London has bus stops
Kiwis love mountains
All sport in NZ involves mountains
The mountains are much bigger than any in the UK
The Northburn 100 is the first 100 mile race in NZ and is hardly a gentle introduction to 100 mile running, unless of course you are a Kiwi and your breakfast includes a mountain. I was expecting a hard race.
The registration the day before was an event in itself. There was a huge camp of runners and organisers at Northburn station. I rolled in after my skydive (where I didn't die), picked up my number, got weighed (marriage adds 5kg at least). I then heard the presentations. The race director was Terry Davis. He was clear that we were taking on a massive challenge and also warned us about "fraternising with the herbage". He retold his one running of the course and said he will never do it again. "don't think that when you are 10k from the end that you are close, you are still hours from the finish".
You may have heard of Lisa Tamati. She is the major sponsor of the race and was helping to register us. She has done a lots of crazy races in her time including Badwater, running across the Lybian Sahara unsupported and the length of New Zealand. She told us to expect the hardest thing we have ever attempted.
We then heard from the owner of the station; Tom. Unlike any landowner in the UK he seemed thrilled to have 100 people destroying themselves on his land. He gave us some advice on how to deal with the animals. This guy has more mountains than we have dinner mats. Can you imagine how popular he would be. "fancy coming round mine to play with my mountains?". Though apparently some girls from Invacargil use the same line with similar success.
And for good measure the medic came to talk to us about the dangers we would face. Hypothermia and Hyponytremia being the biggest risks. I had never had to carry so many layers as compulsary kit before and thought it was a bit over the top. Then he said last year 6 people got lost in an unforecast blizzard. We should be ok this year though as no blizzards were forecasted.
I woke up at 4am on saturday having slept little. However with these kind of things it is the night becore the night before that is most important and that went well. I was very sleepy though as I sat in the car to the start. I woke up a bit when Jon flattened a rabbit that was dazzled by the headlights. I think here I terms of erradicating pests you get 1 point for a rabbit, two for a possum and 5 for a kitten.
The start was sedate. 100 or so runners assembled ina tent, most running the 100 miles, some 100k and some 50k. Lisa was with the camera crew doing interviews. Gemma and I explained that this was my honeymoon race. In fact I just shut up and let Gemma do all the talking.
It was not a crowded start, the 100 runners set off on an easy 5k loop of some farm tracks before getting stick into some of the climbing. This race consists of three loops, a 50k followed by another 50k and then a 60k. It was going to be nice to break it down like that but I imagined it would be hard to set out on that last 60k loop knowing you could call it a day at a nice round 100k.
The loop was in the dark. There was no unnatural light around other than our torches. It didn't really get light until 730 by which time we were out of the vineyards and starting on the first climbs. The first climb was tough, up to the top of Mount Kinaki at about 1000m having started at 200m. This was in the first 20k. There were more climbs on rugged path littered with tussocks (a minor inconvenience) and Spaniards (a plant with leaves like shards of glass, very painful to brush upon).
As we got higher more and more clothes went on. I put a long sleeved top on but in an exposed area I was told by a medic near the top to put more clothes on as I was showing early signs of hypothermia, slurring speech and staggering. I was about to enter into a John Cleese tirade with something like "well of course I am staggering, I've just climbed 1000m through a minefield of pointy spaniards, what do you expect? Me to come strutting up here like Kate Moss? And if I could do this without slurring my speech I'll be winning". But I refrained, put on the clothes and then headed up further.
It was a good job I did put the clothes on as the wind set in and blew all the heat off my body in seconds. This was quite different from any mountain races I have done before such as the UTMB, The Lakes 10 peaks, Trans Gran Canaria. In those you go up and then down, spending little time up high and exposed. Here you get up high and then spend hours up there exposed to the elements. It took about 5 hours to get to 24k where a marshall directed us onto a path. This was the first bit of path we had seen for a while and we all started running along. I think I even managed to bang out some ten minute mileing. Sonic boooom.
Now my layers were an annoyance and took them off. The descent on the first loop was quite manageable and also quite beautiful, I felt like I was running in valleys in Arizona again. It got warm and the summer gear came out. I can see why there was a requirement for so much kit now, I was having more wardrobe changes than Lady Gaga.
I enjoyed the heat and the prospect of finishing a loop but not long before the end we were diverted onto another climb right before the end of the lap. I was hoping to get the first one done in about 8 hours but it worked out at around 830 which was not a big deal, still plenty to go. Gemma and my new in laws were there helping me with a Ferrari style pit stop. Bottles refilled, noodles cooked, sweets and nuts refilled and lots of "you are doing really well". I did not hang around too long and got up and left for the second loop. I despaired as I left at the sight of a burger van right outside the tent.
Why did Gemma not get me a burger? Lousy wife.
The heat of the day kicked in as we marched up the long climb. We were quite lucky with having some cloud cover for most of the day, protecting us from the 30c glare that we have been having here over the summer. I thought about the many friends I had who will be starting the Thames Path 100 in the UK soon. The UK has been hit by snow and blizzards and all involved were going to have a hard time. I felt a little guilt as I splashed my face in a nice cold creek, wet my hat and looked out on the ground for little lizards basking in the sun.
On the way up I spoke to Campbell who I met at the start and had been reading my blog. He said I should have no problem doing this though he and others easily cruised past me on the ascents. The path was much better than in the first loop but it was still hard work. The first climb here was to get to the top of "TW", the mountain top that was the major aid station for the whole race. On the way we were introduced to gale, a furious high speed wind that would be a permanent obstacle in the race. I don't think the video does it justice. I have not felt air rushing at my face this fast since, well erm yesterday. That was when I was in freefall, dropping out of the sky at 200km per hour.
I cowered behind a huge rock, sheltering from the wind to put my jacket back on. I felt a bit silly taking such a big windproof and waterproof jacket with me but now I was very pleased with the choice. The jacket stopped the wind from sucking the heat right out of me but my ability to stay on my feet was rather like Gareth Bale's. I stopped (or was stopped) a few times to regain my balance, looked back and saw other runners behind the same rock putting more clothes on.
It took about 4 hours to finally reach this place and it was a very welcome sight. There were two vans and 4 horse carts. My drop bag was in one of the carts and we were encouraged to spend some time in there getting warm before heading out on the "loop of dispair". I ate some soup and got out of there fairly quicky To try to get as much of the loop done in daylight. The loop of despair was only 13k but it involved a gnarly descent off the mountain and then coming right back up the other side.
The down felt ok. The blisters that I got two days ago from climbing a couple of mountains were starting to burn. Every rock kicked felt like my foot was bleeding. After an hour of descent it leveled out but started to get dark. I tried as best I could to hold out without putting on my torch but with clouds in the sky and the sun quickly disappearing behind the mountains it gets dark suddenly. And it gets proper dark too. I was on my own for this whole loop and with no other torches around if I turned mine off I was in pitch black darkness. Exhilirating but also quite scary.
At the bottom I saw a marshall who reasurred me that I was only 5k from being back at the top. I knew he meant 5k horizontally and that pythagoras would have something to say about it. Realistically I knew I was 2 hours from getting back up there. I slowly wound up the valleys to the top. I had no idea now how to idenfify the top as it was dark. The course was marked with posts and reflective tape, every 50 meters there was another glowing marker to aim for. It was impossible to get lost, they had marked it so well. I was zooming my light in to see further ahead to try and get the shape of the land. Sometimes I thought I saw another headtorch and would get excited that there were others in the race but it never was, just a reflection. I had not seen another runner for hours.
As I crested the mountain I flashed my torch near some rocks and saw a flurry of activity, lots of torches lit and moving side to side. I felt great as the checkpoint had come sooner that I expected. I walked up the switchbacks and headed around to the light but something felt odd. There was no sound. Now I was close to the lights but could not hear anything. I shone the torch at full beam directly at the area and it took a few seconds for me to realise that I was stood about 5 meters from about 12 cows all just staring at me.
We were told in the briefing that we might get freaked out by cows, these big white eyes lighting up randomly in the dark. I have seen how fast cows can run and was very careful about my sheepish exit. Apparently cows magnify things with their eyes and so they think we are bigger than them. That did not enter my mind at the time. I carried on, up a few more switchbacks and looked back, the cows were in the same spot, still watching me climb the hill. I looked up, unable to seperate the mountains from the clouds and sky. Every reflective flash in the distance was another place I had to get to and it looked so high. I saw a dim light way up. It did not disappear wheni took my light off it so it must be a runner. It was so high though and only after many turns and this light not moving did I finally twig, thats Venus. I don't have to go that far.
I was exposed to the wind again near the top as I tried to remember where this checkpoint was. It might be just behind the next rock I kept telling myself. Finally it came and by that time the wind was furious. Blasting me to standstill at regular intervals. As soon as I stopped I froze and had to duck into a horsebox where my drop bag was. I was shivering in three layers. I added my fleece to my layers, put on the thermal tights that I thought were a silly thing to carry. Put on a balaclava that I only put in the drop bag as a joke. I was now wearing all the clothes I had and I was still cold. I had as much hot food as I could manage as I sat in this little wooden box that was rocking in the wind. It was hard to leave but it had to be done. It was only about 11pm and it was only going to get colder.
I headed out of the horsebox and onto the ridge where the wind battered me further. There were 8 types of wind. Headwind, tailwind, side wind (into mountain) and sidewind (down mountain). Each of these can happen when you are heading uphill or downhill. Headwind is the worst, it slows the descents and makes uphill impossible, I was contorting myself into all sorts of shapes to try to get up some of those. Sidewinds are rubbish whether up or down too, most dangerous when pushing you into a ravine. The tailwind going down hill is the worst though, I had to lean back to stop myself getting blown away. The ground is rocky and I could not see very well. I thought I might take off. So 7 of the 8 winds are bad, the wind was 87.5% evil, there was that sweet 12.5% that was glorious, gerting blown up a hill by a gale. Sometimes it was perfect, I could just spread my arms out and use my jacket as a windsail and glide up the hill. Did not happen that often though.
I remained high and exposed for quite a while. After about an hour I came to a junction with a marshall who asked me "have you been here before?" I was not sure how to respond. How does he mean? I think emotionally I have been here before, paranoid that I am never going to get this finished. Metaphorically I have definitely been here before, getting bashed around in all directions by a random force while I try to achieve some goal that I am no longer sure is worth bothering with. Existentially I am only "here" in the sense that you are seeing me here. I could well be over there, or anywhere. But in actual fact he was asking as to whether I have physically been "here", stood by these rocks and looking at this car in the dark. I had not and so had to turn left down another craggy ridge where the wind was 100% evil.
I was a bit confused as to why I had to go in a different direction. I later discovered that we hit the same point on the third loop. He was not 100% certain that I wasn't winning. Awwwww, people almost think the nicest things.
Gemma was in bed now in Wanaka and had put a call out on facebook for people back at home to send me messages. Most of the messages said "I hear you are wearing tights like a girl". I got a lot of positive messages that brought a smile to my face, well the wind didnt let me do that. I did a big circle in the sky and then it was time for the descent, the same one as in loop one though much harder in the dark. I was tired and looking forward to a little sleep once I got to the end of the second loop. I started rattling through the calculations in my head. If I get back at 3, stay till 4 then I have 26 hours to do 60k, that should be easy. However there were sections that I was going slower than that pace. But I was still up high. I figured that it is net downhill from here to the end and though I am only about half way I could say I have already done the hardest bit. I have used this logic many times before and it has always been wrong. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, thats the definition of insanity isn't it?
It seemed harder the second time even without the additional loop with the other hill.On the way a quad bike passed me and said it's only about 2k to the end. I thought that there was no way this was true, I have not covered that distance. Then there was a car with a marshall who said "you'll be pleased to know it's only 6k to the end". Well I would have been pleased for it to be only 2k but I was even more pleased that my brain was still working and could guess distances.
I finally saw the lights of the camp and staggered in at about 330am. I saw Campbell again who said he had called it a day. 100k over that terrain is pretty good going but I was determined to do the whole lot, after a little nap though. The medic team sat me down and asked a few questions before weighing me. I had dropped 3kg since the start and they suggested I ate and drank if I was heading back out. I lay down on the nice soft warm grass and closed my eyes.
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