The Great North Walk – Dave Byrnes Interview

To most of us, Dave Byrnes is the unassuming race director of Australia’s toughest 100 miler, the Great North Walk 100s. Quiet and polite Dave works meticulously hard to ensure that this monster of a race runs smoothly each year. But there’s a lot more to Dave than meets the eye. In his day, an elite marathon runner with a PB that most Aussies would give their right arm for, and that’s before you even look at some of the treks and adventures that Dave has undergone – it’s fair to say that he really is a true modern-day explorer and someone who we at Ulta168 really look up to and aspire to.

We caught up with Dave ahead of this year’s race to find out a little more about the man behind the race, his adventures and to also explain just how much work goes into organising a race like GNW.

We know that you’re a very accomplished runner, cyclist, bushwalker and all round adventurer. Can you let us know your running background and how this has moved into such great adventures over the decades both here and overseas?

I began running regularly at school in London in the 1960s, where my father had been posted for three years.  My main motivation was to escape the full-back position on the school rugby team where I was regularly pummelled, but I think I also hoped to emulate the feats of my Australian heroes such as Ron Clarke who was sweeping all before him in Europe at the time.  I never showed much ability (PB mile of 5:10 at school…a fair way behind Ron’s junior world record of 4:06!) but I enjoyed running, especially in nearby Richmond Park.

Dave on the Appalachian Trail in 1986

I continued running on my return to live in Melbourne and, although I was a journeyman at best, was fortunate to have running friends who set very high standards.  At Monash University, I found the athletics team could have fielded an Australian standard representative team and I never threatened for a place on the intervarsity teams.  Lacking sufficient speed, I decided I was destined to be a marathon runner, which seemed to be confirmed with a 2:44 in my first marathon (Victorian Championships) at the age of 19.

During my 20s, which included stints in the Army (National Service) and Europe, I continued to train with quality athletes and was gradually sucked along to some success.  Although self-coached, I was a disciple of Arthur Lydiard and experimented with higher and higher training volumes.  This approach seemed to suit me and I produced my PB marathon (2:19) at age 29 off a build-up that averaged more than 240km per week, rarely run at slower than 4 minutes per kilometre pace.  My PB track 10km (31:17) came at a time when I was experimenting with up to 300km a week and I ran my PB 5000m (14:26) and PB 3000m Steeplechase (9:10) off 200km per week.  Perhaps not surprisingly, these years were also characterised by frequent and often serious injuries and I had four major leg surgeries plus other chronic problems.

By age 35, it was difficult to maintain my competitive standards and my priorities began to switch to other things, starting with an 18-month sabbatical in the US and Canada.  My wife at the time, Barb (a 2:46 marathon runner), and I toured in a small camper van for a year travelling between National Parks, doing lots of hiking and trail-running, and competing in obscure and not-so-obscure races from Alaska to Florida.  I followed it with a four-month solo hike along the length of the 3,800km Appalachian Trail up the US east coast which remains one of the most memorable and rewarding experiences of my life.

Soon after our return to Melbourne, I found work which took us overseas again and there followed sixteen years living in the UK and US, with extended stints in Frankfurt and Hong Kong, and four million air-miles.  During this whole time I was pretty religious about starting my day with 10+km regardless of how early I had to get up, how little sleep I had, or how jet lagged I was, and tried to run further on weekends.  I can remember my favourite regular morning runs in many cities in the world.

I became interested in ultra-running, but still spent a lot of time injured, and didn’t manage to participate in too many ultras and never with much success.  Highlights were probably London to Brighton and a couple of JFK 50 Milers.  Circumstances conspired to make it feasible (if parsimonious) and desirable (two increasingly Americanised teenage children) for me to retire in 2003 and we returned to Australia, deciding to live on the NSW Central Coast because of its climate and outdoor recreation opportunities.  Since that time I’ve continued to run as much as possible, have become involved with Terrigal Trotters and have tried to have one “adventure” (cycling or hiking) each year.

From a running / outdoors perspective what accomplishment are you most proud of?

Like many runners, I’m most proud of my marathon PB – 2:19:06 – which was run in the 1979 Victorian Championships.  It was Rob De Castella’s first marathon and, at 10 miles reached in 52 minutes (very close to my PB at that distance), he and I were the only ones in a leading bunch of seven who had never run sub-2:20.  Soon after, I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and backed off the pace a little, letting the bunch get away.  Rob apparently put the hammer down at half-way, coming home with a negative split and finishing with 2:14+.  I maintained a steady pace and spent the second half gradually reeling in the others one by one to finish second.

Tell us a little more about the Via Alpina 2012 you have planned and I’m afraid to ask, what else is on your list?

For next year’s “adventure” I’m travelling to Europe in May and setting out from Monte Carlo to hike 2,000km along the Via Alpina walking trail in

2009 Round Australia record attempt

an arc through the European Alps via France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Italy to Trieste on the Adriatic.  If all goes to plan it will take 11 weeks and I’ll finish in time to go to London to join three old (in every sense of the word!) running friends at the Olympics.  I can’t wait!

I have many other “adventures” on my list so will have no trouble maintaining my one per year average so long as the body and budget hold together.  Insanely, I still harbour an ambition to have another go at the solo unsupported round Australia cycling record after three failed attempts, though I’m not sure my ageing body will let me.

How did the idea of the GNW100s come about, what were the challenges in obtaining approvals and how did you come to be the race director?

When I retired and returned to Australia to live, it was always my intention to get more involved in the running scene than had been possible during my recent working career.  I studied for some coaching qualifications, joined the Terrigal Trotters committee and began thinking about organising an ultra race in Australia.  There were plenty of 100 Mile trail races in the US and I thought it should be possible to come up with a good one in Australia.

While exploring my new home on the Central Coast by foot and mountain bike I became familiar with sections of The Great North Walk and slowly the idea of organising an ultra race along it evolved.  There was an air of incredulity at the Trotters Committee meeting when I first suggested the idea but, to their great credit, I received almost unanimous support.  I knew that there would be a lot of work necessary to get it off the ground and that I was the only person in Trotters with the time and motivation to do it, but that was fine by me and I’ve been ever grateful for the generous support I’ve received from the Club and its members since that time.  And I’ve been surprised and pleased by the number of Trotters who have taken up trail ultras and run in the event over the years.

Getting the necessary approvals for the first event was both time-consuming and frustrating.  It required explaining the concept to sceptical people at four councils, three police districts, National Parks, Forests NSW and the Road Traffic Authority, producing voluminous documentation and meeting their varying requirements as well as negotiating the use of facilities for all of the Checkpoints.  This seemed a lot of work for just 13 entries in the first year!  We’ve been fortunate in having no serious problems with the event in the six years to date and now the authorities are familiar with the event and me, things go quite smoothly.

7 years ago people were saying it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done, what was your vision for the GNW100s which are now known around the world as the toughest trail races in Australia?

Dave Byrnes congratulates Andrew Hewat on topping the Honour Roll with 6 consecutive race finishes

I wanted the GNW100s to be a real challenge involving a significant degree of self-sufficiency and providing great personal satisfaction.  I enjoy enticing new people into the sport I love and was looking for something that would attract those keen to explore their mental and physical boundaries.  In my own running and adventures, I’ve come to love and appreciate the multi-dimensional journey that takes you from A to B and, at the same time, through the full gamut of human emotions and physical experiences, and I wanted a race that gave competitors that journey.  Great and varied scenery along with the camaraderie ultras provide would be the icing on the cake.

Where do you see the race progressing over the next 5 or even 10 years?

When we sent the 13 runners on their way for the first GNW100s, we did not know whether it was even possible for someone to cover the whole 175km course inside the cut-off  times we had established.  To our knowledge, nobody had ever done it before in one go, so we were quite relieved when Dave Waugh appeared on the beach at Patonga.  Since that time we’ve been gratified with the growth of the event and the favourable feedback we’ve received.

I think we would like to match demand by increasing the numbers of entrants accepted in the future, but the physical constraints of some of the Checkpoints and the risks of volunteer burn-out are real and significant.  The Terrigal Trotters Committee has reviewed and renewed its commitment every three or so years and this process of review will continue in the future.  I think we are quite keen to keep it relatively “low key” but will consider limited appropriate sponsorship.  I’m not sure that I personally want to keep putting in the amount of work necessary on an indefinite basis and will probably consider my position when we have completed ten years.

You’re well-known for being a meticulous Race Director, what are some of the behind the scenes challenges people may not appreciate when it comes to staging a point to point 100 mile trail race?

GNW100 2010 Race Start - A full race of 100 people embark on 100 individual journeys

I don’t think I could run this event if I was not retired and I do admire Race Directors such as Andy Hewat who also have real jobs. The number of approvals and amount of documentation necessary to satisfy the authorities has been mentioned earlier.  Lining up Checkpoint locations and purchasing, hiring and borrowing equipment is also a significant task.  The responsibility for the facilities we use at Teralba and Yarramalong has changed in the last few years adding further complications.  There was also a rumour Congewai School was going to close a couple of years ago, and I’m always thinking about what our options are for alternative Checkpoints.  Additionally there is the processing of entries and withdrawals, maintaining the website and the signing up of volunteers.  October and November tend to be pretty full-time on GNW work these days.

How many volunteers / people are involved with staging the race?

This year we have roughly 130, many of whom give up the whole, or large parts of, their weekends.  We are very lucky at Terrigal Trotters to have so many committed members, families and friends.

Do you take pride in the DNF rate at the GNW100s? If it becomes easier or more people complete will you look to make it harder?

Gordi Kirkbank-Ellis "The Running mad Kiwi" openly showing how much a finish at the GNW means to the competitors

For reasons explained above, I want the race to take people to their limits physically and mentally.  We all know that, when we are operating at our limits, weak points are exposed and the risk of failure is ever-present.  Consequently, I feel that a significant proportion of the field incurring DNFs shows that the race is meeting my goals.  It also makes completion that much sweeter for those who do finish.  I expect that times will come down and completion rates will rise as more people run and the trail becomes more familiar.  However, I haven’t thought about making it tougher.  Maybe when Grant Campbell finishes we’ll have a re-think.

We hang on every word of your detailed reports of your adventures but one thing we’re all keen to see is for you to have a crack at the GNW100s. Is this on the horizon?

I was considering running the 100 Miles after I turned 60 (which would be this year), but the standard set for 60+ year-old finishers by Bill Thompson has become too intimidating!  That aside, painful experience at GOW last year has persuaded me that a chronic back problem (which dates from a stress fracture one month after my PB marathon 30 years ago) seems unable to cope with the hours of running necessary to complete the GNW100s.  However, never say never.

How many gold GNW100s medals did you purchase all those years ago? And how long do you think they will last?

I think I originally ordered ten gold medals.  However, eighteen months ago, when reordering gold, silver and bronze medals (they come from South Africa) for the 2010 and 2011 GNWs, the manufacturer made a mistake and made them all gold!  They told me to keep them so I think we now have enough gold medals in stock to see us into the next century.

Gold (Sub 24), Silver (Sub 30) and Bronze (Sub 36) Only 2 Gold medals have been handed out in the history of the race

What are the three keys to success at the GNW100s for runners who are attempting their first 100 mile race?  What do you see as the key things the top runners do well?

I think the keys to success are pretty much the same for both novices and experts (and for life!).

  • Careful preparation in terms of both training (on the course if possible) and logistics (good and tested gear, nutrition plans and hydration plans).
  • Good self-management during the race in terms of pace, navigation and scheduled stops.  Don’t get carried away early, pay attention to where you are on the course at all times, and don’t dally too long in Checkpoints.
  • Know that good times follow bad.  You are bound to have some down times during the event, mentally and physically, and perseverance is needed to negotiate these bad patches
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Andrew Vize
Sydney based Ultra marathon runner.

16 thoughts on “The Great North Walk – Dave Byrnes Interview

  1. A great interview and a great insight to his thoughts. I am proud (and at the time it was it just plain stupidity) to have been one of the 13 at the start line for the first one. I never made it to Patonga until the next year but it did ignite my interest in ultra’s. For that I will always be grateful to Dave for presenting the oportunity and to my running buddy and crew for being part of that first weekend.

  2. Ultra 168 have interviewed many people but in my opinion this is of the best one bar none. Dave is extremely accessible and yet humble. Many people wouldn’t have a clue of the depth of his running background or his history. U168 has once again excelled itself and interviewed one of the masters of Runners, if not one of the master for Race Directorship.

    Awesome read. Thank you!

  3. Thanks AV for the insightful interview. I must say that Dave has served as a great role model for me as a race director and adventurer. I hope I get to shake his hand at Patonga again this year.

  4. Great interview Andrew. I agree with Buzz, this is one of the best yet! Dave would make a great case study into how to live your life to the full. What an adventure his life has been.

  5. Terrific interview. Dave is such a hardcore athlete and someone I liked from our first meeting. When I DNF’d at GNW last year, I really felt I had let Dave down as much as myself.
    This wonderful event he has created; – it’s a beautiful monster. I can’t stay away from it and I will have to be very smart and very patient this year while chasing my sixth finish. No other ultra in Australia can smash you physically like GNW can, and then there’s the mind-games.
    I have very fond memories of going head-to-head, hammer and tong with Dave at the Mt Bogong to Mt tHotham ultra a few years back. It was such good hard competition, battling Dave right to the finish, almost like a one-on-one match-up. We turned ultra-running into a bloodsport that day.
    Love ya’ work Dave!

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