Dan Bleakman Northburn 100 miler race report

When all is said and done, the two team members of Ultra168 finished the inaugural Northburn Station 100 miler yesterday. Ever the consistent, Darrel finished in a time of 28hrs 5mins, with me coming home a few (read seven) hours later, with a time of 35 hrs 2mins.

A side wager was also on the cards, with the loser having to wear a t-shirt of the winner’s choice. But the competition between Darrel and me was never in doubt as the big Coasty set off like a bullet from a gun. The first 10 metres of the race was all I saw of the big guy for the next 36 hours or so. But despite taking on a side bet, racing Darrel was never seriously on the cards, not someone who’s notched up 5 massive hundred milers in the last year, and high positioning at all of them to boot as well. For me, this race was purely about the finish having had a few balls-ups in the past with 100 milers, so in doing something like Northburn I wanted to prove to myself that I could do a 100 miler, but that I could do a monster of a race too. It would have been easy to pick something like Glasshouse, which although some people say is one of the easiest going around in Australia, it’s still 100 miles. For me, when someone doesn’t believe I can’t do something, I have to take it one step beyond and pick something that will push me as hard as I can possibly go.

With a little self-indulgence, here’s a run-down of how the race went from my perspective…

Training had been spot on for me, and I’d done pretty much every single session that I wanted to, not been ill at all in six months, and had achieved more than I thought I would in terms of my training and where my general fitness was. So, it was with great horror that on the Thursday night as I was leaving work for the airport, I could feel the first signs of a cold coming on. I wasn’t too worried because every runner gets a little bit of pre-race cold paranoia. The flight was a nightmare. Planes generally make you feel crappy, but as I landed in Christchurch I felt pretty rank. No worries I thought, just paranoia again. Woke up Friday morning after a poor night’s sleep and no change, feeling pretty crappy all day and lying in bed that night, I seriously thought I could be a DNS. HOWEVER… early to bed and a solid 7-8 hours’ sleep and I woke up feeling a lot better. Not 100%, but much better… OK, so game on.

As I got ready that morning, I was thoroughly shitting myself. This was good. In my other 100 miler attempts, I’ve not been worried in the slightest. This told me a lot in that I’d never really taken the previous attempts seriously and to be honest, I didn’t believe I could finish – and all that stems from confidence. I’d done much more this time to prepare myself mentally for this, and I’d also made myself more accountable for this race too. The only question I would ask myself all day was “Have I got any reason for not finishing this run”… the answer was always “No excuses”.

At 6am, 31 competitors lined up for the 100 mile and 100km race, 21 of which were in the ‘miler’. It was dark, calm and surprisingly mild. Our first loop would start with a gentle 5km loop around the vineyard to get us going, before we were shuttled along up to the mountain and to begin our first big climb, just a casual 1,400m to the top of back of the mountain ranges. Although there were a few steep sections, this was nothing I hadn’t done before, so the going was good and I just set off at my own pace. The cold I had been feeling was taking a bit of an effect though as I could definitely feel it going uphill, but no dramas, I just had to keep it steady so that it didn’t become uncomfortable. I reached the top of the first climb in 4hrs 17mins, which was the halfway point of the first loop. After this, we had a lovely 15km meander downhill, which contained some great running, and it was here that good time was made back to base – but not before a sneaky little 10km loop that the organisers had put in to make sure the distance got up to 50km for that first loop.

I think this loop caught a few people off-guard. Mentally, you’ve said to yourself that the climbing and the downhill is done, but this little loop had a few sharpish hills, and as the sun came out, I think some of us started to cook a little. Still I reached the end of the first loop in good time I thought – 7hrs 35mins. Without having seen the course, I’d mentally set a goal of around 8 hours, taking in the profile of the loop, so I was pretty happy with the efforts. More importantly, I was feeling great. It was towards the end of the first loop that I’d decided to give each loop a nickname. The first loop was the warm-up, the second was the business end, and the third was the hang on and f***ing hope loop.

A quick refill of the water, some more food, torch and vest and I was off for the second loop, and another climb of 1,200m. This climb was probably the hardest of the lot. The going was very steep early on and the heat really did start to take it out of you. However, once we reached around 800m, it did get noticeably cooler, but if we thought that the first section was steep, the next one really did knock a few people about. I met one guy having a lie down on the trail, obviously stuffed, so I handed him some ginger and he seemed to perk up. Upwards we continued for what seemed to last an eternity until we reached the CP at the top of the mountain known as ‘TW’. We were to get to know the guys up there pretty well, passing through there four times over the next 24 hours.

After a massive climb, the only way was down, and it was here I really started to feel buoyant about the run. I felt great and confidence was high and I was really looking forward to the out and back loop as it would give me chance to see some of the other competitors. Until now I’d run on my own completely, and that was to continue for pretty much the entire run. But for now, it was nice to say a hello to a few people. I had hoped that I would see Darrel and Gordi, but the guys were running very well and were long gone. Nevermind, I’ll keep on plodding along. The good thing was that the out and back was smack on halfway for the race, which I think I reached in around 13 hours of so. The reality was that I knew that I’d be out there for an awful lot longer. But that was good. With the night coming, I set myself a goal of where I wanted to be when day broke. For me, that was to be at ‘TW’ again on the third loop, having done the climb on that loop in the dark.

However, after the nice out and back, we had a section of water race, where we followed the line of the mountain along some pretty precarious track. Just in time for me, it also started to rain, so passing through here was pretty full on. I slipped a few times, the feet got soaking wet, which wasn’t a bad thing as it helps numb some of the pain in the feet and after all this, I knew there was a lovely 600m climb back up to TW to contend with. The climb was again very steep, but all in a day’s work. Just get the head down and go. It was then when I reached TW that I got confused somewhat. I thought we had to do a little loop, whereas in actual fact, we were due to head straight back down to base. So down the loop I went, duly passing some marshals around 4km down, whilst keeping my eyes out for the turn back up the mountain. But as we descended, there was no turn off. I went further and further down, and the elevation on my Garmin was reading 640m. I really thought that I’d missed the turn and was contemplating a long slow climb and some wasted kms. But when in doubt, consult the map. Getting it out I realised there was indeed no loop – thank God. It was straight back down to base.

As I trekked on down, I met with Brett Harris on the trail, whom I’d kept on swapping places with over the last 10kms or so. He was having a bit of a rough day, but would come good, before going bad again. I decided to team up with him as I’d run 90kms on my own, so thought a bit of company would be good. We kept it slow and steady as we went down and down, and to be honest the downhill was starting to do the quads in a bit. I also started to get some quite bad backache as well, which was weird. I left it for as long as possible, but all throughout the race I had to keep asking myself, what reason is there for not finishing? What was my plan if something went wrong? I don’t normally take any form of painkillers in a race, but I had brought some with me just in case, so I decided to take one Panadol, and what a difference it made.

Reaching the bottom of the course, there was then a really nagging 10km section of switchbacks in and out of the mountain alongside the road. This was actually pretty painful to negotiate. You could see where you had to go, and if it had been a straight line, it would have been half the distance, but still, it is what it is. It was here that I also left Brett. He still wasn’t running well and told me to head off if I wanted too. I needed to get this section done, so I put the foot down a little and made good progress to reach the end of the second loop and the 110km mark in 21.5hrs. This was officially my longest race distance ever, and for me a big milestone. I’m extremely glad they put the 60km loop as the second loop and not the last, it made a big difference mentally.

Getting to base I felt amazingly good. The quad ache was gone I was walking freely and I couldn’t wait to get back out there – this was where I knew I had to take a big dose of HTFU pills and get this loop done.  I set off at around 3:30am, back into the darkness and back up the steep hill for another 1,200m climb. I was glad that it was in the dark to be honest, so you couldn’t see where you were going, however the slowness of my climb made me realise just how steep it was. The climb dragged on forever, and just when you thought you’d reached the top, it was just another ledge to go around and carry on climbing up and up. I was totally on my own here and in the middle of nowhere. No other lights around me, just the trail, some glow sticks and the vision of the Northburn buckle to push me through. Beautiful.

I reached ‘TW’ again at around 9am. A little behind where I wanted to be, but happy that the last ‘big’ climb was done. All that was left was the so-called ‘loop of despair’. This was a short 11km loop, but I was advised it would take 3-4 hours. I knew what was coming though, a big 700m drop down to 700m or so, before climbing back up that same murderous hill that we’d done some 15 hours earlier on the second loop. The one that had knocked most of us for six a little.

I decided to attack this loop as hard as I could, knowing that the last 15kms were easy downhill. I ran down as hard as a runner can do after 125kms and reached the turn-around in 1 hour, but knowing that it would take me 2 to get back up. I think having resigned myself to this, the climb didn’t appear too bad and I managed to do it in just under 3 hours – so a happy Dan knowing that there was just a short-ish uphill to the highest point on the course (1,647m) and then the meandering 15km downhill along the same track we’d run down on the first loop to get back to base.

After a short 4km trek I reached the last marshals who promptly gave me a message from Darrel and Andrew that I was to ‘keep going and finish’. No hit Sherlock :)… all good and very much appreciated. However as I started to head towards the turn-off I felt a ping in my right ankle, towards the front. It had immediately swollen somewhat and now running was pretty much impossible without a limp. Bugger, I was really going to try and push the downhill as if I did, I knew a sub 34 hour run was on the cards if I worked hard – something I would have been very happy with. Each time I tried to run, the foot became very painful, so now it was a walk-hobble and I knew 34 hours was a no go.

Just before I reached the turn-off for the downhill, a sudden wave of cloud came in and it started to rain, heavily. It was at this point I really thanked my lucky stars that I’d brought my Gortex jacket with me. I nearly left it at the top of the mountain as I thought to myself that as it was only 15km downhill and that I’d cover it in 2 hours, and that I wouldn’t need it. However I had decided to tie it around my waist just in case. Boy was that a good call. The rain pelted down and I suddenly became very cold. Having to walk/hobble was not helping either, and as the rain got harder, the snow also started to come down too and the wind was gusting me off my feet, I suddenly realised that I was in a bit of danger here. I was in a very exposed part of the course, 1,600m high up and the elements were hammering away at me. It was here I made a decision that the ankle would get better in the long term for what would be a bit of short-term pain. So with that I took one more panadol and started to go as fast as I could down the mountain. Getting down lower = warmer and safer.

The foot was really hurting now and I thought that I may have a stress fracture of sorts. Stuff it, there was 12kms to go and there was no way I was not finishing this. Suddenly a truck pulled up with the race director and it was here that I thought they might abandon and pull us off the course. However a quick check that I was OK, and I was good to go. The reality was that I was still very cold and shivering a lot. I was worried about hypothermia, but was told there was another truck a few kms down the road. Once I saw this, I quickly jumped in to be greeted by some very kind marshals, and promptly put on my last remaining bit of kit, a much need thermal. I was now wearing 3 top and 2 rain jackets. The difference of the thermal was instant and off I set again, but with still a very painful right foot.

The downhill continued and out of the rainy skies appeared base… I was walking again by this stage, but as soon as base was in sight I had to run. There was no way I was going to walk in my first 100 miler finish, so I trotted into the shed in what was quite an emotional moment for me personally.  I’d put a hell of a lot of training hours into this and I knew that no records were going to be broken for me as far as times were concerned. This race was purely about finishing and overcoming some of the difficulties in the past. To be honest, the thought of quitting never entered my mind and whilst the race was tough physically, it was nothing that over-awed me in anyway. I’m lucky to have been able to train with some great runners in the build-up, including Darrel and for the most part, Andrew Vize in our session during the week. There’s no doubt that I’m a better runner as a result of training with these guys and pushing myself harder and harder in training, and that’s mainly down to Andrew and our sessions during the week. There’s a reason why he’s so successful at what he does. He probably trains harder than anyone else and wants it more. Fact.

Looking back, we did some massive runs, not in terms of distance, but in terms of effort. Our 60km out and back on 6ft track in 7 hours was one of the highlights where we pushed ourselves so hard that both Darrel and I knew that Northburn was going to be a special run. It’s also amazing to see just how hard Darrel does push himself and the results of his runs speak for themselves in the last year:

– Mind Alpine – 2nd place

– Glasshouse – 4th place

– GOW – Equal 2nd place

– GNW – 4th place

– C2K – 7th place

– Northburn – Equal third

Is there anyone else on the ultra-running circuit that has placed so consistently high in Australia and NZ over 100 miles? Simple answer is no. If you’re looking for Australia’s ultra-runner of the year, he’s your man.

As a last word, this is a stunning race. It is brutal not only in terms of the amount of climbing, but the descent too. There’s very little flat running, but if you appreciate being in some of the most beautiful country on offer, love a challenge of some big hills and a chance to spend some time with yourself, this is the race for you.

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

2 thoughts on “Dan Bleakman Northburn 100 miler race report

  1. Dan thanks for the extensive race report. I’ve signed up for the 2012 intake which is just over two months away. Looks like it’s gonna be one hard effort to finish this one, I’ll make sure to but in every effort in training to be ready for it.

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