Northburn station is a large private 14,000 hectare sheep station in Central Otago New Zealand that runs 10,000 merino. It is virtually treeless like much of Central Otago, the terrain covered with tussock, grasses, thorny matagouri, rosehip and spaniard grass. There is almost no flat place on the whole property, all hill, rock and biting wind that will blow you off your feet! Fortunately, the 2019 version of the Northburn event had fantastic weather, but verging on a little too hot in the first 12 hours or so.
The event has races that cater to all levels, ranging from kids races of a couple of km to the longest race, the 100 mile, spread across 48 hours which is the maximum allowed time for the 100 miler. The race director is a sadistic type, there are some big hills on the station and wherever he sees one, he plots the race, yep, right up it. Overall for the miler, there is a total of 10,000m climbing and 10,000m descent. Don’t ever let anyone say that downhill is easier, it uses less energy and you move faster, but it really, really, REALLY hurts!
I’ll try to explain the why, but I’m not sure it’ll cover everything. There are a few reasons why I wanted to do this race. I had always kept my eye on it and knew that it is one of the most challenging milers in Australasia. It ranks up there with UTMB and Hardrock in difficulty but without the altitude. It is relatively close to where I live, just a short flight and I just love Central Otago where I have visited regularly for holidays when I was younger. I am sure that our family camped on the banks of the Clutha river almost exactly at Northburn before Lake Dunstan was formed. Last year I followed friends as they ran and I really wanted to experience it. I also followed people who were racing Hardrock last year & Northburn is one of only two races in Australasia that is a qualifier for Hardrock. So I decided I have to be in to give myself options….. watch this space!
I didn’t enter immediately as I knew the race didn’t fill up quickly and this race really scared me and I wanted to be confident of getting to the race in one piece. I also didn’t tell Kylie how hard it would be and she was blissfully unaware that I would need a lot of preparation. I was planning to run Bogong to Hotham (B2H) in early January to give me a good build up race, but I hurt my foot on a training run in mid November. I took six weeks+ off running, waiting for the foot to come right and decided to pull out of B2H. I started running again around Christmas day. Lucky the foot came right because us runners can be difficult to live with when we can’t run!
I had kept active after hurting my foot, I spent time at the gym and rode a mountain bike, but it just does not match running training. Despite that, I ended up building a good training block quickly and do feel that the extended break before Christmas actually benefitted me overall. The only scare was three weeks out from the race, I strained a calf slightly so began tapering a tiny bit earlier than I thought I should. I really put my trust in coach Scotty Hawker to get me up to speed. I was a bit nervous about the rate of increase in load, but it all went well. It is scary doing a 2.5hr very hilly run on Friday night after work, then getting up early for an 8hr mountain run from Katoomba on Saturday morning. Looking back, I think I was as fit as I could have been before race day.
As usual, Kylie would rather have me running the last portion of the race with a pace/safety runner. I knew no one in NZ who would be up for it, so I contacted Mal Law of Wanaka, who knew many potential candidates, I provided a sweetener of donating to his mental health charity. There were quite a few volunteers, most fell by the wayside, but Steve Tripp always said he would do it. He was racing the 50km on Saturday, but would still be keen. I locked him in nearly two weeks out from the race and the rest is history. He was a fantastic, experienced pacer and I never even realised I was being challenged to keep my pace up until I look back now.
The course for this race is a bit of an enigma. I poured over the course profile, but never really worked it out properly. In comes a connection that Scotty set up with Eemon, another of his clients who had done the hard work of setting out the run in a logical stage by stage format. This was great material, if only I had chosen to read it properly! For some reason, I had it in my head that during the first 50km loop, I would pass through the main check point called TW half way around. I had planned to change to cooler clothing and pick up more food. More on that later.
We decided to make a bit of a holiday of it and left Sydney for Queenstown on the Wednesday to spend a couple of days chilling out. Queenstown (and Arrowtown) is a great place for this and we ate and drank well, all good Kiwi things that we miss. A famous Ferg Burger on the first day is a great way to start!
I went for a run on Thursday morning around the lake shore and got talking to Shannon-Leigh Litt who I discovered was also running at Northburn, but using the 50km as a training run, so was out on a 30km+ run that morning. She would have done Northburn on tired legs, but she still finished strong considering she told me hills were not her friend.
On the Friday, we drove to Cromwell. We met up at Lowburn (directly across lake Dunstan from Northburn) with an old school friend of Kylie’s who generously allowed us to stay in their ‘holiday’ house for a few nights. Little did we know we would rattle around in a 5 bedroom house on 6 hectares with amazing views of mountains all around. The stay there was a fantastic race base where we wouldn’t disturb anyone else with comings and goings at all hours.
We went to gear check on the Friday afternoon and then the race briefing. We were early and I caught up with a few friends that I don’t see very often. The atmosphere was pretty good and the weather hot. It was forecast to be similar the following day. The briefing was entertaining, Terry the race director tried his best to scare everyone, but I had read it all before. Anyway, there was no way that I would not give it my best, whatever the conditions and terrain.
Final preparations of drop bag and then early to bed, though not the best sleep as per usual the night before a race.
Loop 1 (50km, 2650m+- 7hrs 44min)
The race started at 6am. We were there early as it was only 10 mins drive from Lowburn. There were plenty of nervous faces about, but I was just keen to go. I dropped off my TW checkpoint bag and started the race with a short sleeve wool top and arm warmers. It was still dark and we started the race with a 5km loop called the loop of deception which looped back through the start area again. I called out to Kylie who watched us go through, it was still pretty dark so I’m surprised she recognised me.
After the loop, it finally started to get a bit lighter, but cloud prevented a bright sunrise. I was hiking up a large hill and there were lots of others to talk to. This was tough, but I was dreading the fence line that was supposed to be tougher. Actually though, the fence line was fantastic. By this time, we were reasonably high and once we left the 4 wheel drive track, the flora was amazing as it was alpine-like and the water ways were very pretty and with soft moss underfoot. There are no trees up there, but what there is, is thick scrubby bushes that only grow no higher than 300mm. There are not many runs where you can say that you ran through the tree tops!
We finally reached what I think is the highest point of the loop and there were a couple of red utes which made up the aid station. I stopped for a water refill and they said it was about 10km to the next aid station. I asked about TW and they said we wouldn’t be going through it. I was shocked and realised I had planned this really badly with my first thought being I am going to roast in the clothes I was in. I also didn’t want to uncover my arms as sunburn was the last thing I wanted. About 1km down the track I than also realised I wouldn’t have enough food for the 50km leg either. I had prepared for around half that distance maximum. I wish I had realised that at the utes and nearly considered going back to stock up with what little food the aid station could provide in the way of chips and muesli bars. Oh well, I just had to take my time and spin out the food that I had and minimize the pace to stay as cool as possible.
Most of the rest of this loop was downhill and despite preserving myself, I think this whole loop was the most enjoyable of the whole 100 miles. The running ‘off piste’ was just amazing, but I was wondering how much time the flora might take to recover from the runners feet pounding through.
Once back on the track, we started to descend quickly. Eventually we got to a little aid station which had fresh home grown grapes. I was pretty hungry so threw down several handfuls. The tannin and acid sat in my stomach badly, so maybe it wasn’t the best decision, but overall I think it had no real effect and the energy was a bonus. I met up with Glen Nicol, who is also one of Scotty’s clients and we ran a fair way until I slowed down again when I got too hot. It was great to finally get to the start/finish point and with Kylie to look after me. I probably spent about 25 mins here, a bit longer than I wanted, but I wanted to get cool. Someone filled my water bottles and added ice, I think the weather had approached the high 20’s and there is never any relief from the sun at Northburn. Kylie plastered me with enough sunscreen to last the rest of the race (and it did). I must have looked very pale!
I did confide with Kylie that my urine was looking extremely dark red but I thought that it was due to the beetroot juice I had been drinking over the last few days to see if it worked as a secret weapon. I felt really good so decided it wasn’t serious…..
I ran the 50km loop far too fast, but that is what happens when there is plenty of energy left over from tapering.
Loop 2 (50km, 3700m+- @100km = 18hrs 44min)
I knew the next climb would be a biggie. The race director had a name for it and think it included the word death in it! We would reach the highest point in the race after only 14km. I didn’t make it to there without lying on the track (part of the Loop of Despair) watching the view for 20-30 minutes, waiting for my body to stop spasming. Better to do that and finish than not finishing at all. I am getting wiser. It looks like my race planning mistakes were beginning to catch up with me. I realised my electrolyte balance was out of whack and I took electrolyte tablets, which I wouldn’t normally do.
I finally got up and going again and ran a bit with Paddy (a fellow Sydney resident, but from Ireland) into the Leaning Rock aid station which is the highest point of the race and part of an out and back. Paddy and I left together, but I was able to run more and ended up running alone down to TW, which is the main aid station where I could finally get all the food and clothing that I needed. The air had started to chill down again, so I left all the warm clothes on and headed for Mt. Horn. My go to food was tinned spaghetti and a bottle of ginger ale.
I was running OK, initially it was downhill. I caught up with Glenn Sutton and pretty much spent the rest of that loop travelling with him. He had a wealth of knowledge as he had run every year since it started and has won the event twice. He was recovering from a serious injury, but still participated and I thought was moving relentlessly forward. We made good enough time and I was feeling pretty good since it was dark and the temperatures had dropped. We were watching for headtorch lights behind us but I felt we were moving better than most. The only person to pass us was Sally Law. At the time this confused me as she had passed me about 30km back looking strong.
We got to the start/finish the 100 odd km point in 18hrs 44 and I was feeling pretty good but was planning to spend more time there than Glenn. I downed more tinned spaghetti and then had some apple. My pacer Steve was ready to go and I was keen to get back out. The apple suddenly didn’t sit right and everything turned to S*%t! I felt nauseous and began to shiver. The race director was not keen on me going back out into the night until I looked better. I started to drink hot sweet tea. They weighed me and I had lost 5.5% body weight so I decided I needed a bit of re-hydrating. I wrapped up in blankets and kept on drinking horrible sweet tea. Glenn came up to me and gave me the bad news that we had taken the wrong route down and that is how Sally got ahead. That meant that we would have to do the section that we missed by doing it in the last loop!
Kylie kept on asking me what the plan was. She hadn’t got much sleep and it was now after 1am. Suddenly, the tea had just got too much and I vomited it all up, completely emptying my stomach. Combined with having to run outside the marquee and empty my bladder, I felt that I was ready to go again. The vomit had re set my stomach and I was ready for the challenge. All up I had spent two hours at the checkpoint. At least the urine was clear and no longer dark red!
Loop 3 (60km, 4100m+-)
This loop is easily the hardest and most soul destroying of the race. Initially we followed a different route up to TW and when I got close I knew that I needed a bit of a sleep. The horizon has just started to lighten. I told the CP crew that they needed to call me in 15 minutes. I closed my eyes and slept in a tent with a sleeping bag on an airbed. When they woke me, I felt completely alert and mentally clear. Only the body struggled to get going, in fact it was a battle to get out of the tent without cramping!
We set off on the first of two loops from TW. The first one is the loop of despair (Steve and I thought it should be renamed to Loop of Awesome), the sunrise was just awesome. It is a very steep bit of track that took us down a gully, just to bring us back up again. All up about 600m of descent and ascent. It was on this track that I had my ‘rest’ during the second 50km loop. This time I felt good and had passed a few people including friends Tom and his pacer Gene. Back at TW, I ate more spaghetti and cracked open a V. All went down well and we had to do the second loop.
This loop first of all went back up to Leaning Rock, then returned and went down an extremely steep track which is the water race. This track was murder on the quads, we were again walking on top of the low scrub and very scoured track. After what seemed like forever, we got to the bottom and came across an angel sitting in a beautiful spot outside a tent. One thing about this race is the dedication of the marshals and other volunteers. She was at this spot for a long time and still had a smile for us. It is very remote and sheltered with the most amazing view to lake Dunstan down to Clyde and Alexandra.
Now for the UP! We had climbed another 500m down, so now had to climb back up to TW. At least it is mostly on a dirt road. Finally back at TW, I finished my spaghetti and had another V. That is most of the uphill completed, now for the big downhill, except for the little sadistic up bits! Mentally it was so good to know that I was on the home stretch, barring any catastrophe, I was going to finish. I passed through Mt. Horn aid station and we told the marshals that we would be taking the pylon track because we had missed that on the second loop. There was no way that I wanted to say that I hadn’t covered the proper course. Now with quads screaming, I had to do the part that was going to add an hour or so onto my finish time. The pylon track was not much longer, but it had some seriously slippery grass lined technical track for tired legs. I wasn’t surprised, but we came upon another runner, Glen of course was also doing the loop. I had caught nearly 2 hours on him since the 100km mark. It gave me some confidence that I was doing OK. I then had a bit of an episode with an energy gel. I had not been eating well all day, but this gel went in and I immediately dry retched. I have no idea where the gel went, but it stayed in there! I pulled ahead of Glenn as I was running better downhill than him.
Finally, we joined the main track and pulled into an aid station just after Tom and Gene and a couple of other runners had left. We had to turn right up the last major climb of the day, bicycle wheel and we caught them. It seemed to go on forever and we were now a group of about five runners plus a few pacers. The lone bloke at the CP at the top seemed grateful to see people and plied us with food and drink. He told us it is now all downhill to the finish.
The quads were now singing loud and clear, STOP! It was at this point I mentally blocked out the pain and know that going slow will not make the pain any less, just prolong it. I pulled ahead of the group of runners and wanted to get to the finish as soon as possible. I could see that everyone hurt, but I wanted to demonstrate I didn’t hurt at all. They all dropped back. Once we got about 3km for the finish the terrain is dirt road and nothing steep, I planned to run/walk it in.
When we were about 500m from the finish, I had a quick look back and spotted a runner behind, less than 100m away and running. I said to Steve, we will have to pick it up a bit. We started running again at a reasonably slow jog, I thought this would be plenty fast enough to stay ahead. I didn’t dare look back again, but Steve did and said they were gaining. I picked up the pace a bit and realized we would have to run all the way and wasn’t looking forward to the rise out from the river. At about 50m from the finish line, there was a sizable finish crowd now. I looked back and saw that there were two runners at what I thought was nearly an all out sprint! That was it, there was no way I was going all that way to lose two places at the end and I sprinted as hard as I could. The crowd started screaming and I heard Kylie really shouting for me to move. I still didn’t dare look back. I saved the last bit of energy that I could summon to do a jump across the line and beat the other two in a photo finish. Boy, that is not the way I wanted to finish, but it was such a buzz! I have seen two different videos of the finish and I just can’t stop watching them!
Once I had finished, I collapsed on the ground and didn’t get up for at least 20 minutes. That race and course is just epic and to finally finish after months of planning and preparation is so satisfying. I didn’t think that I had done any damage with the sprint, just sucked the last bit of energy out of my body and it sort of went into shock. I had so much gratitude for Steve for the pacing and for Kylie looking after me at the aid station. We didn’t hang around too long, only to see Tom come in with Gene pacing, but I had stretched out quite a lead in the last 7km or so. I did weigh myself again and all up, had lost 5.3kg (7.2%)!
Eventually we got back to Lowburn and I didn’t really feel up to eating or drinking and felt very ill. I was just a zombie and had a shower and went to bed but felt too hot. Kylie came and woke me again and fed me some paracetamol and water and I went to sleep again. I woke up in the night and suddenly felt myself again. The very act of finishing consumes me and I disregard everything else to finish then the body must go into shock. Sometimes it can take a few hours before I can feel better. The sprint finish did not help!
That race really took it out of me, the rest of the week in New Zealand was just resting and recovering. Funnily enough in the airport on the way home, my hand baggage was put aside during x-ray. I was asked to open it, bugger, I thought, what have I left in it! Then it twigged, the Northburn buckle is a really heavy piece of metal so I pulled it out of my bag. I said there was no way they could take that off me, they just smiled and let me through. I doubt they had any idea about it, but decided that it wasn’t a weapon!
Nutrition and fluids
I still cannot get food right. I tend not to be able to eat enough and revert to high energy items based more on sugars. These are OK for awhile, but eventually my stomach cannot even take these. I was still able to eat tinned spaghetti at the aid station, so I need to find some real food that is more portable that I can eat. Steve fed me some sausage and cheese at one stage and it went down and stayed down, so this might be on the right track.
For fluids, I used Tailwind for the first couple of hours then carried water for the rest of the race. Ginger beer, Coke and V were still good to consume after that, but I didn’t overdo them which seemed to be the right balance.
Other than the complete stuff up with the drop bags, the gear was as near to perfect as it could be. My hydration pack chafed my back a bit, but this was manageable. For my feet, I wore Injinji socks, Trail Gaiters and Hoka Speedgoat 3 shoes that are half a size bigger than usual. Apart from a slight discolouration of my left big toe nail and a bit of discomfort from the shoes tightening up in the last 10km, I got through the best ever miler without any shoe change. In the cooler periods I used short sleeve Icebreaker shirt with thick Ground Effect polyester arm warmers and Buff, perfect, except when I had to wear them in the heat! During the hotter part of the day I used a white polyester shirt with white cooling arm sleeves and a white legionnaires hat which was ideal. The best choices overall were the shorts and underwear, I used T8 Clothing’s Sherpa shorts and Commando underwear which are the best items for an ultra I have ever worn. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
The reply Kylie’s bit
Now let me put in my 5 cents worth & tell it how it really was
Correct, Stephen failed to mention this was the toughest race to date, but I did attend the race briefing where my inexperienced trail running brain was inwardly in a state of shock over hearing what lay ahead. I know enough to know this was serious business but I best not dwell on it and no way was I to discuss it with the Mr who was still packing gels and snakes into bags. After a rip roaring heated discussion over his plan for food bags for aid stations, I had given up trying to understand this race and its three loops.
Good to later find out I was in fact correct and he had no clue what he was talking about and in fact had completely misunderstood the loops and TW. Hence he was left in woolen shirt and seriously lacking nutrition.
Anyway, at the first 50km meet up point, I did ensure I absolutely covered him in sunscreen so much so, I was later to go full panic mode when I considered his skin may not be able to breathe nor sweat and he would be lain out on course surrounded by sheep.
The snacks I had purchased for my lunch he ate and was in fine spirits when he left soon after midday. I chilled then returned about 9pm to race base as the large house was beginning to spook me, possums, rabbits, I don’t know, but by the time I left I was convinced someone was in the roof and every shadow was a spook.
On arrival, I parked up the rental and could not believe me “all the gear no idea” had not remembered to bring a headlamp! Lucky for the full moon or maybe not, tends to bring out the weirdos. Asked the Ladies how #11 was going I really did struggle following the Yachtbot tracker & like I said i’d given up understanding the 3 loop business.
Woop woop, I think midnight he arrived, looked great sounded great, ate and I’m like awesome I’m outta here! Boom! After the spaghetti and 10min break that was it, the old demon nausea/shakes were back. OK, you want my blanket, here put on my jacket. Yes, I was tired and yes, I was politely asking “what are your intentions?”, “where to from here Stephen?”. Fed him green apple, I’d heard they’re good for hangovers I’ve more experience in them than endurance events, but of course that was not a good idea. I made tea half sugar half water, probably six cups, he seemed to like it! I was tired and cold, the patience was gone. I messaged Steve the pacer & said if you guys go, I’ll sit in the car and make sure you are well clear.
Finally he vomits & then has the cheek to say I know you’re tired and just want to go to bed, ha, like he meant it! I didn’t bother with an answer. Speech bubbles were “yeah mate but really can’t complain you’re the dickhead who’s potentially gonna be out there 46 hours!
All of a sudden he goes I need to go for a pee. Finally I know he was good. I stuck to my word and slept in the car until 7:30am & told myself no more worrying one way or another I’d get a call to pick him up.
Filled my day, checked Yacht bot but gave up, too confusing! Then he disappeared altogether! People were messaging has he DNF’d? is he OK? etc.
Had decided to shower and head down to race start with my blankets for another night in the car. About to shower & phone messaged “be there in an hour”. I thought from Stephen then I freaked it wasn’t his number! Shit, no way, omg! Like finishing, or in an ambulance?
I can’t believe I showered, dried hair, yes, anyone who knows me it’s a process! Arrived at the finish line, asked the ladies & they say he should be coming in now, there’s a group of them. Omg, he’s actually done it, this is unbelievable! I ran out and he’s coming down, there’s a runner on his tail. Mooove! GO STEPHEN! You beauty, absolutely amazing woohoo!!!
He may have felt like shite but he looked like he had been on a stroll. Took him home, dealt with the horrors of washing his gear and left him to sleep. Was slightly concerned when he seemed to be burning up, but wet cloths cooled him down. We’ll just put that down to the beetroot juice or I will be saying NO MORE!