Surviving Northburn – The Alternative Race Review

What started out as a Facebook cry for help to tackle the Northburn 100 turned into a highly funny review of what to expect out in high country of Otago. Here, Dr. Adrian Mulholland, a Queensland trail runner provides his account of his trip to Northburn last year. Some of you in the Brisbane Trail Runners Group will have read this, but I thought it too good not to share. Enjoy and sign up to Northburn if you dare!

So, you have decided to run Northburn. Oh dear.

I’m on the phone 50km in, crying. I want out. A windy wet poo broke my resolve, it went everywhere. From then on, I was done. Nothing short of a decontamination unit could make me go on. I was five hours from the base though, so I probably could have, I had to get back down.

My disastrous (not really, just sick and should not have started!) run can hopefully give me a chance to tell you some odd bits for tackling this hell of a race.

I hope this helps!


The airport is slow and getting out of it is super slow ,so allow LOTS of time to get to Cromwell. QANTAS has a flight that gets you there on a Friday arvo but it is touch and go. If you book it, you’ll have to accept a little stress getting to the race briefing on time. Let Terry the RD know, he’ll look out for you. He is a true champion. It does mean you avoid waiting in a line for gear checks Friday arvo. A big plus.

Remember the time difference, it means race day is like a 3am start, that is not to be underestimated. The race is long and you’ll be finishing early Sunday in the dark if you are FAST (100km). A Sunday night/late afternoon flight would be Ok. For the Miler it’s Monday, Mandatory.


Nothing flash needed (or available). You wont be in it, you’ll be walking on the side of a mountain. Cromwell has a bevy of similar priced nice little hotels. I stayed in the Colonial Manor and it was just fine. It is about 10 minutes drive to the start line from Cromwell. There is a Woolies (equivalent) very near by to get food.


There is great coverage on the course, you are fine 90 per cent of the time, it’s just expensive, almost worth buying an NZ SIM at the airport, seriously! You might be using it as a tracker for the Yacht-Bot guys, so it will need an extra battery/USB power for one leg. I owe them $20 too… I’ll be back in 2018.


You know it is hard, it is but it’s REALLY HARD. Get your head around the idea of doing 3km/hr for some of it, hours of it. I took just under 10 hrs to do 50km. I was off in the bushes a lot but still it is slow going. You just have to keep moving. As I say, it is all mental. You can not go fast, it’s too steep or no path at all, or you are scrambling over a rock or leaning into 100km/hr winds.

Special things are unique to the race, the evil spiky plant they mention, it’s real and you will be cut. Tough gaiters will help a little. The water points are well spaced but you are very alone so FILL UP.

Natural water is available too but you can get caught out. It is 10-8km from the end of loop one say, but that will take 3 hours and it’s hot in the Loop of Deception. Which looks like nothing but is a HELL HOLE of steep rocky madness that is so close to home but takes hours in the afternoon sun, well over 30 degrees. This is all after a sub 10 degrees rainy, windy, foggy ascent.

The weather is diabolical. Prepare for everything. You will experience it. See above. It can also be very dusty with fly like things about.

After the start there are no toilets until you get back. Deal with this carefully. Gloves, wipes, you name it, I came undone here, it was vile. There are no trees, just rocks to go behind. They may be a few hundred meters away, you have a choice. Remember the wind up top, this might blow things about……

Did I mention it is windy? Steep? Rough? Lonely?

The saying you do not race it, you survive it is so true. No other race has the same potential to test your ego. You have to just accept it is long and slow. You survive.

I did not go into the night but I can imagine this would be hard work. Cold will seep in and there is nobody about. So prepare for that kind of loneliness and glacial progress mentally.

The course is very very well marked and the start/finish is well provisioned. Your crew can not do much at all other than a very vital pep talk and clean up at 1/2 way.



Shoes are a big topic, all I can say is a rock plate and toe bumper will help. Poles are a personal choice, I do not use them. Most do but you can finish with or without.

You will need to carry food for 50km as a start and then what you need to get to TW on loop two. This is just how it is. Ten hrs worth of food plus clothes.

You’ll need cold weather and wet weather cloths with spares. A set at the start and a set for TW. Even if it is dry you can get cold.


You need to be strong as in have done strength training. Its hard work hiking up a very steep hill and you do have to carry a bit of gear. Some scrambling is in there too, as well as LOTS of stiles to cross at fences, this is important to know as they test you once tired.

You run some of the way for sure but you can already run, can you hike? It would be good to do one long all nighter or late into the night run, just to be comfortable in the dark, alone.

I trained very hard for me with the limits I have. I did some long long runs in prep and was ready physically. I am coached by Hanny Allston and even talked to Majell Backhausen about running the Miler but in the end only went 50km.

Try to go into it as fresh as you can. Mentally as well. Listen to Dave Goggins talk to Rich Roll, you might just use that attitude at some point. It is not a shame to just walk it in.


If you do, well done, it is a really big achievement but lots of people don’t. It’s a big effort just to go overseas and race, even in NZ. You’ll get a whole new appreciation for what is out there. I would love to do it again and know it’s on my list for 2018. The 100 is doable, you can even enjoy it a bit but the miler is another step again, the last loop is so so hard and long.

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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.

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