You don’t race it, you survive it.
Well folks, Northburn 100 has well and truly come and gone and after much deliberation, reflection and procrastination I would like to share some of my thoughts and feelings from the experience. I must admit there were moments early on after the race that I struggled for motivation and felt pretty flat. I suppose when you build up to something for so long and invest a lot of time and passion, it is hard not to come down to earth with a thud. Some of you will know that I didn’t achieve what I set out to do, which was disappointing, but I gained so much from the experience and a key reason I do this stuff is to test my boundaries (so in a way, mission achieved). It being my first ever DNF was a bit hard to swallow, but I made a promise to myself as I made the final decision to pull out at the 100 km mark that I would not dwell too much on the negatives and come back a stronger, more focused runner/athlete.
Right back to my early days in ultra-running, 100 miles has been a distance that I wanted to test myself against. Choosing something as brutal as Northburn for my first ever 100 miler was a bold and maybe slightly naïve decision, but I would not change it for the world! I wanted my first to be an adventure of a lifetime and an unforgettable experience and Northburn did not disappoint. As soon as I heard about the race last year, read personal accounts from runners and viewed images captured by Paul Petch, I was hooked and knew that I had to be part of it.
Views on first loop.
After struggling with my recovery and motivation after last year’s Tarawera 100 km, I put a lot of thought into how I was training, my diet and most importantly ensuring that my running would be sustainable, fun and of health benefit. I focused a lot on lower intensity running and as a result became a more efficient runner; combined with a (not very strict) paleo-style diet, my fat burning capabilities increased no end – I stripped of a lot of body fat, could go hours on the trail with little food and was pretty much injury free. In hindsight, focusing so much on building a strong aerobic base and neglecting the other aspects of training, such as strength work, was a mistake … but for me it was still a worthwhile journey.
At the start line, day before big race.
I came into Northburn feeling in pretty good shape. I had a solid block of training under my belt, had a good hit out at the Kepler Challenge in early December, and was confident of the task at hand. I had plans in place, strategies for when the going got tough and a great support crew made up of Tanya and members of my family.
I had people around me that truly believed I could do this thing and I was again humbled by the messages of support and goodwill that I received. My sincere heartfelt thanks go out to all those people.
Contemplating what lies ahead.
To the race itself. The first 50 km loop went well and I was enjoying being out there and soaking up the views. I climbed strongly and was doing my best to find a good rhythm, not wanting to overdo it early on. The moon-like scenery at the top was out of this world, the downhill quad smashing and being sent out on the 11 km loop of deception only a stone’s throw from the headquarters/checkpoint, mind bending. It was the toughest 50 km I had ever done; the realisation of the task ahead was sinking in.
Focus on keeping warm.
At top of first loop.
I arrived at the headquarters feeling ok, but in hindsight this is where maybe things started to unravel. I was in race mode and didn’t really stop to think about the fact that this was the last time I would see my crew for maybe 10-12 hours and that I needed to make the most of this stop. Tanya tried her best to get me to eat and get my shit together, but I think I was in too much of a rush to get out of there. This strategy has worked for me in the past, but Northburn is a different ball game. I needed to switch into survival mode, especially for a middle/back of pack runner like myself.
Getting ready to go out for second loop.
Thinking the first loop was tough, I was in for a rude awakening heading out onto the second loop. The climb up to TW (top aid station) was unrelenting and mentally I started to struggle. It was concerning that the negative thoughts were creeping in so early in the piece and I was spiralling downwards. Paul (my pacer) was working hard to keep me motivated and focused, but I was starting to pay for the lack of nutrition and even though I knew that, I still struggled to take stock of the situation and do what I needed to do, such as eat and keep hydrated. On reflection, there was a part of me that didn’t want to do the last 60 km loop, so by not eating and drinking I could justify to myself pulling out at the 100 km mark (what a mind f***!).
We made it up to TW and I half heartedly took some food on (still not enough) and left for the loop of despair (a 13 km loop back to TW, 6 ½ km down and 6 ½ km up) knowing it was going to be a make or break section. The sun was by now setting and the views back down onto Lake Dunstan and Cromwell were spectacular. I started to feel ok again and had some good conversations with Paul. It got dark and colder on the climb back up and by the time we hit TW again, I was seriously thinking of pulling the pin. I knew deep down this was not an option (I could never live with myself) and Paul would not have allowed it anyway :). This was when I made the deal with myself that I would go on, but pull the pin at the 100 km mark. In a way it was a relief and my whole focus now was on making 100 km.
From TW back to headquarters was bloody tough. There were times along the top of the course you could hardly walk because of the wind and were literally being picked up and blown off the track. There were moments I seriously thought there was a jumbo jet taking off behind me and yes, I did have a look. After we finally got off the ridge we had 14 km of downhill to the end, which on tired legs was tough.
As I came in to headquarters, the first person I saw was Tanya and I think she could see in my eyes that it was over. Dad had only shortly before chatted to Tanya about being prepared that I might pull the pin (parent intuition) and it was a pretty emotional moment for us all. I was asked to stay at the tent for an hour by the medical staff, due to losing 3 kg, and after a vomit and sit down, I was able to start taking on sips of water and the only thing I felt like eating was pizza. I was eventually allowed to leave, in the good care of Tanya and Dad and headed back to the motel, mentally and physically exhausted. On a positive note, I came away with no blisters, no chafing and pulled up remarkably well the next day. Probably a good indication I had mentally fallen short on the day, which I knew was a huge part of the race, but now have a much better understanding of just how big a part.
I made sure I spent Sunday afternoon welcoming in 100 mile finishers, which in itself was inspirational and motivational. One person that sticks in my mind is Peter Wardle, who having never previously run longer than 80 km, completed his first ever 100 miler. Like others he pushed through some serious physical and mental barriers to finish the race well into Sunday evening. It is guys like Peter that make this sport so special.
Peter after finishing his first 100 miler.
A big shout out to the organisers and volunteers, you were amazing and I can only see the race going from strength to strength. What makes the event so special is that it brings together such a diverse bunch of people that all have one thing in common, they are passionate about what they are doing. It is a recipe for an amazing experience and to be surrounded by so many inspirational people, all with their own stories, is intoxicating and keeps you coming back for more (yes Terry, I have unfinished business).
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