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The Not-the-Northburn-Miler Miler

Thursday night. Northburn minus 30 hours.

Madly packing for the drive down tomorrow.


A message.

It's from Tanya – an awesome young lady who's aiming to be one of the first women to complete the Southern Seasons Miler Challenge. Northburn is race 4 – the last in the series for her. She's spent a year training and racing 3 milers to get to this point. She's peaked, primed, pumped – excited as all hell. Or she was...

“Terry's cancelled!”

F a a a a a a a a a r r r k k ! ! ! !

The global pandemic tightens its noose on us and YANK, pulls all our feet out from under.

Terry was going to allow runners to do a loop of the race as course clearing – but as a “pack” to avoid anyone getting lost. For me, I'd entered this race because it's supposed to be the toughest in NZ/Southern Hemisphere and I want to explore my limits. To put myself into places deep inside of me that I haven't been before. Was it worth the cost of driving down there for a pack run? Even before I've articulated these thoughts fully I already know it's not what I want. And I know the solution.

I will do a “virtual Northburn” from home.

We put the word out to see if anyone else also affected wants to join “the fun” but there are no takers. (To my relief actually because since the start and end of the loop are on private land I would have to escort people through those bits for the first loop at least and therefore it would compromise me being free to run how I feel on the day).

The Course

We had this is mind as a possible option for the Southern Seasons Challenge folk if Terry did have to cancel. It's a loop I did in training – 55km with 2,550m of vertical (ascent/descent). It's not quite as much vert as Northburn but as close as we can get around these parts. Nothing other than Northburn will be Northburn, but the terrain is “Northburn mean” so it's a close simulation. We think!

From our front door I go up the valley about 1km before the steeper zig-zag climb up to the ridge, through the bush remnant onto Te Ara Pataka (Crater Rim Walkway) just under the Mt Sinclair trig. From here I follow the track past Mt Fitzgerald, Double Fenceline, across Western Valley Rd to the junction at the top of the Kaituna Valley. Here I run Steph's Wild Things “Kaituna Grande” loop by going down Monument Track South into the valley, then back up to the Packhorse Hut and on to Mt Herbert and back to Mt Fitzgerald to go down the other ridge to the Pigeon Bay/Port Levy Rd and a 4km gravel road steep downhill before finishing the loop with the 2km gradual climb back up the valley floor to home. It's an awesome loop!

The Race

In my head is the distance and vert. Distance is a little more than Northburn 100 miles (better than being short!) but the vert is less. I've trained and trained on these hills. I am hill-strong. So, my plan for Northburn should be fine here. Because the vert is less, I should even be able to go faster. From analysing different runners' Northburn performance I'd set some target times. Adapting these for the new loop we figure on aiming for a similar kind of time – which means it may be possible to do close to, or even under, 30 hours. I'd done the loop in training in 9hrs. Last year I did the Northburn first 50k in 7 1/2hrs. We know I can run it quicker under race conditions but how quick? I need to keep plenty of energy in the tank for later. I thought maybe 8 ½hrs. What we didn't think about was the technical aspects. Or that 9hr vs 7 1/2hr difference. Northburn is pretty much “just” a straight slog – get on the hill, get in “a gear”, and just grind away at that steady pace. This loop is different. There are gates. And stiles. And big-arsed rocks to step up, down and over. Big steps. And lots of them. 3 times. I set out and run this course as if it is Northburn and it is not . . .

I do Loop 1 in 8 ½hrs and am feeling great and then I find I am missing the target times for the next loop . . .

People said I would need to dig deep, to go deep inside myself to complete the challenge, in fact, that was what I wanting. But it didn't happen like that. Right from before the start I had commited to do what it takes to complete the challenge. When Terry announced Northburn was cancelled I simply shifted focus to complete a challenge that I wanted.


Problem. Solve. Problem. Solve.

So when an issue cropped up during my race it was “Ok, how do I solve that to keep going”.


“Why is my (left) heel sore?” - I figured I was heelstriking on that foot. But why and how to fix? I concentrated on form and foot angle/placement and slowly the pain receded.

But then “Why is my left knee hurting?”. The problem had shifted. How do I solve it? I tried to soften the landings, went a bit slower and monitored the pain level. I wondered if it might be a reaction from not enough fluids, or if the orange juice was having some effect so changed how I was drinking and monitored. In the end I decided there wasn't much that could be done short of resting the knee completely so I monitored the pain level and since it was coming and going decided I could keep on but if it got too bad I would have to stop. (Hence why I considered not finishing the last few km's on the third loop once I had clocked up the 161km for the 100mile – no point doing unneccessary damage and the mile was the challenge not the loop). But it meant I had to take extra care going up and down steps such as stiles, fences/gates, and rough terrain with large slabby rocks to negotiate (like the whole back face of Mt Bradley)!

I ran that race continually monitoring my performance and body and made matter-of-fact adjustments to get the job done. For me there was no doubt in my ability to finish, there was only uncertainty about if the body (knee and achilles) would hold together for it. Do or Do Not. Matter of fact.

What wasn't Matter of Fact

So my approach to the “race” was matter of fact but it wasn't all like that. There were moments. Special moments. Ordinary moments perhaps but ones that stick in the mind.

  • The deer walking above me right at the start of the race and it's mates roaring periodically off to the right for the whole hour I climbed up to Mt Sinclair

  • The next morning at the start of the 3rd loop at almost the same spot wondering why that sheep's eyes reflecting off my headlamp were so far off the ground and then realising that it was a deer standing on the track in front of me, then watching it turn and bound up the hill

  • The hawk riding the air currents at the top of our valley during the first few hours of Loop 1 – majestic, smooth simplicity and latent power

  • The hedgehogs snuffling along – one along Double Fenceline during Loop 2 in the night, the other on PB/PB Rd right before the end on Loop 3

  • I felt priviliged to be so close to these true Wild Things, that they had chosen to share their spirit with me during my challenge.

  • The “aid station” table that Steph had set up when I stepped in the hut after Loop 1. It was beautiful, and full of all the good things I needed/wanted. I ate so much during my 15 minute restock “transition” that I paid for it for a few hours after on the next climb!

  • The wildness of running Mt Herbert and onward track in gale force wind – leaning into it and actually aiming off – running at 45 degrees to the track so the wind blew me back onto the track! The “doing it” aspect was matter of fact but the thrill of being out there in that wildness wasn't – especially when I encountered the 3 girls in the saddle between Little Mt Herbert and Mt Herbert who were tramping towards me.

  • Meeting the 3 girls again in Packhorse Hut on Loop 2 when I went in to read the message Tony had left me there, and then seeing them again on Loop 3 during the climb up from Kaituna Valley. They had nick-named me “The Crazy Running Guy with the poles”!

  • The stars during the night once the cloud disappeared

  • Having Steph run with me on Loop 3 either side of Western Valley Rd when she brought out the sun cap, Ice Blue rub for the knee and achilles, and some food treats, and then again for the last kilometre. Hot sun, stunning landscape and she who loves me – nothing matter of fact about that!

  • The scenery/landscape – I run this area all the time. The landscape is stunning, awesomely beautiful, and ancient - as only a weathered volcano can be. At times you'll be chugging along “matter-of-fact” and then blink and see it with different eyes – how special it is and how lucky we are to have this in our back yards!

Also the interest and support. As I write this I'm struggling with it a bit as I don't think that what I did was really that special. I mean I get that it's special – not many people actually want to run that far. And even amongst those that can/could, not all of them would be able to just go out and run a brutal 100 miles all by themselves with no race structure, no medal/buckle, nothing to drive them to do it other than the decision they'd made to do it. I get that, but to me it was just a personal thing. A task I'd set for myself to hopefully push me to a place I hadn't been before for personal growth. Why should that be so interesting to others, let alone inspiring?! Why should people be (reportedly) staying glued to their devices waiting for Steph's next update of my progress? We all have our own personal journeys. Our lives intersect with others, everyone at different stages of their journey in terms of learnings, awareness etc and it is natural to learn from and be inspired by others, I just struggle when it's me! I guess that I have some really good friends and I am grateful and blessed to have them in my lives. Thank you all for that.

Loop by Loop Overview

Loop 1 I was fresh and full of hope. It started overcast and as I climbed up towards Packhorse the wind was getting noticeably stronger until, when I broke out of the shelter of Mt Bradley's back face it was hitting me full force. It was coldish – windbreaker-and-thir-over-the-face-cold but not balaclava-and-padded-jacket-cold. From Mt Herbert back to Kaituna turn off the wind was super strong with the need to “aim off” requirement described above to keep on the straight and narrow (and keep the adrenaline pumping!) but it quitened then, and switched direction further along the trail. The cloud cover made it seem like night and I thought later that the weather was “backwards”. This did affect me though because I drink less when it's cold so when I finished this loop I had lost over a kilo – more out than in!

Loop 2 I knew I was starting to slow. I took an extra quarter hour than usual to climb up to Mt Sinclair (25% longer) so I was trying to remember the various checkpoint times and conscious of the slow down. It played on my mind. Meanwhile the day turned, the sun setting as I descended into Kaituna Valley with the sunset itself hidden from me by the flank of the valley. I turned the headlamp on just after the start of the track climbing up to Packhorse. I'm not sure when the cloud thinned and went but by the time I got to Mt Herbert the stars were visible – faintly, but there. By the end of the loop I was a bit disappointed/despondant about how long it had taken me and I spent much longer than the planned 15 minutes in transition.

Loop 3 Things really started hurting. Right from the start of the Kaituna to Packhorse climb my achilles started screaming. I had tweaked it much earlier (Loop 1 I think) in a hole under my heel on Double Fenceline. It had been fine then but now it wasn't! And my knee – that had been on/off discomfort during training and during Loop 1 once I transferred pain away from the heelstrike. Now it was settling in for the duration! Also my back where the pack rested and strangely (I thought), my right elbow was noticeable with a repetitive strain type ache. My left thumb was also having an effect – this was a pre-race thing – a puss-filled splinter that hadn't come out. It changed how I used the poles and it prevented me getting things out of the left hand pocket of my pack. There was also a dryness-behind-the-eyes feel which I took to be a result of a day and a half with no sleep on top of a lower hydration level than normal. But the sun came up along Double Fenceline and the pain nature & levels were such that I felt there was no reason not to finish so I just went on and on, adapting clothing as the day got hotter. It was awesome to have Steph join me just before Western Valley Rd so I could rub down the major aches with the Ice Blue. That stuff is a life-saver for an endurance athlete! I had wondered if I should stop after I'd clocked up the 161km before the end of the loop but the pains stayed at bay such that I could jog some of the huge downhill and almost all of the final up the valley climb to that amazing woman waiting for me about 1km from the finish line. She ran me in to a relatively strong finish after 35hrs on foot.

I felt like, subject to the knee behaving, that I could have kept going. My energy levels were good all through the race and other than the touch of despondancy/disatisfaction with my times during Loop 2, my mind was strong. Good training (thanks Steph!), good nutrition (thanks Steph!!), and strong mind (thanks Steph!!!) = good result.

Distance: 165.8km

Ascent/Descent: 9,113m

Time: 35hrs 07min (Start 07:01am Saturday 21 Mar, end 6:08pm Sunday 22)

(includes 1hr 15 in transition between Loop 1-2, 2-3 and the impromptu aid at Western Valley Rd saddle during Loop 3, plus other breaks en-route)

Before the race, one of my friends had said “I hope you get what you want” (from the race). Well, no - my times fell short of what I was hoping for, but instead I got what I needed. I got some lessons learnt and I got a good experience. I got to finish the race and I was still able to run at the end. I ran the final kilometre and a half up the valley solidly whereas in my last miler I pretty much walked the whole second half. I have a new respect for that loop. It is beautiful and brutal and I am happy that I did the distance in the time I did. I even wonder if it's a harder race than Northburn, but I'll probably never know. And it really doesn't matter – it wasn't Northburn, it was the challenge that I set myself and I met that challenge.

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