A casual out and back along the GNW… All 550kms of it! Part One

When I first heard about this run – an out and back along the GNW, covering 550kms in just six days, my initial reaction was. “Awesome, but that’s damn ambitious!” But, it sometimes takes a little bit of crazy for the rest of us to realise what’s possible. “Burty” Burt Kennedy is someone you’ve probably never heard of. He’s got bugger all ultra running experience, and to most, this may have seemed like a pipe dream. But, for something like a GNW out and back attempt, for the most part all you need is a massive set of balls and a will to never give up.

As Burty set out on his run / hike, I followed with anticipation, wondering if he’d make it. I said myself, he needs to be in Sydney within 2.5 days if he’s to stand a chance of getting back to Newcastle in six days. But Burty gave himself a chance. And, despite picking up an injury on the way down. Sheer doggedness got him through it all. Here we tell Burty’s story over the course of two articles. This is a classic case of if you want something bad enough, you can go out and achieve it. You don’t need to shit loads of race experience. Sometimes a bit of ignorance is bliss.

Could you give the readers a bit of context around why you decided to run the GNW out and back? And why the GNW?

I chose the Great North Walk as I had hiked this trail one way years ago over 5 days. It was so savagely beautiful, when I got to the end of the hike I remember sitting there wondering what it would be like if I had to return, at that time it was a crazy thought.

As the years went by, I met Matt and Jodie and wanted to do something to help them given Jodie isn’t much older than me. She is in an irreversible position of limited movement due to Motor Neurone Disease.

I wanted to come up with something so extreme it would draw people’s attention to why it was being done. To highlight that still having the privilege of movement and being able to use it to achieve what was considered unachievable by many. I wanted to really emphasise that anything is possible, which creates hope reflective of any situation.

Then the crazy thought came back. So I started asking questions around the ultra-running community and found out no one had ever attempted a return run of the Great North Walk. But it also had a very negative effect because I have no running credibility. It was extremely tough to get the ball rolling and only once the run had started, did people really start jumping on board.

This crazy idea along with learning about using your strengths to your advantage from Joey Ward was how the GNW500 was born!

In saying that, by no means was running a strength of mine, I knew I could ascend and descend incredibly well. And, know I had the ability to function when extremely fatigued with a high pain threshold. So, I figured this would suit the majority of my strengths.

What’s your running history to date?

My “running” began last year when I decided I wanted the title of an ultra-marathon runner. I turned up to the UTA50 with next to no training, with a torn deltoid ligament in my foot painfully completing the run in good time, mind you I was straight into a moon boot after.

Following that my first big run back, I paced Joe Ward for 29km from Yarramalong to Somersby when he won the GNW Miler last year. Then I ran the Cathedrals Challenge in December, a short sky race in Victoria, following the advice of Kirrily Dear. I had hiked this previously and thought it would be a fun one to run.

This really highlighted my ignorance for trail running. Turning up with my Asics Kayanos, I set off but 4km in, once climbing the rugged terrain I tore across the top of my left shoe exposing my toes and leaving it hanging for the remaining 17km. This meant quite a few good stacks where my hanging shoe had caught and tripped me up, a real comedy of errors to say the least. But, I managed to get 4th place in the end and didn’t break and toes!

The down side of having no real running credibility with the GNW500 was a lot of people didn’t believe this could be achieved by someone reputable, let alone a nobody! Sometimes it only takes one person to believe in you to give you the confidence that you can achieve it. Luckily I had two who helped from the very beginning, Brad Smithers and Kirrily Dear.

You set a very ambitious target (good on you), what preparation did you take to get into 6-7 day shape so to speak?

Funnily enough I had originally allowed 8 to 10 days to complete this run. But, it was Brad and Kirrily who gave me the confidence I could do it over a much shorter time period.

Having never considered doing anything like this before I wasn’t sure how I should train. So I sought advice from David Byrne (GNW 100s RD), who I’ve still never actually met, but he jumped on board after I told him why I was doing this. He sent through so much information on everything running, I followed what he had suggested for the mid-week sessions then sent back what I was going to do on the weekends, knowing how my body responds to extremes.

There were a lot of weeks with injuries. I pushed myself to the absolute limit, changing my training weekly to suit any injuries. I didn’t really have a choice but to push to extremes, after giving myself six months to train. I started looking at the elevation vs the distance vs the time on the track and decided I needed a good mix of endurance and elevation!

I began with a moderate mix of both, running with distance and elevation from 50km with 1600m up to 80km with 2500m. Then, I broke the training down so that every fortnight I would focus on distance with moderate elevation over multiple days and then the alternate weekend, I would have a single day with massive elevation.

In short, I covered 1,320kms over 18 weeks with an insane 63,235m of vertical ascent. This was the equivalent of 3 half marathons, 4 marathons and 14 ultra-marathons run in amongst these kilometres. The training seemed to have worked out pretty good, finishing the GNW500 in 157 hours 56 minutes and 44 seconds being 6.6 days. Looking back and discussions with Brad, six days was still easily achievable even with the injuries, but it was all a massive learning curve for me.

Give us a bit of a break down as to how you planned each day, how long you ran for in each sections, breaks and rests/sleeps

Much to my own surprise (and not without the help of Kate and Brad), I actually had a very detailed schedule. I trained on most sections of the GNW normally with a 5kg pack running up to 70km unsupported, filling up bladders where I could. I carried as much food as I would need for the day, giving me an idea of how to work out my timings for the different sections.

On the days where I had support they would meet me during training between 30km to 50km, it was either Lexi or Kate who also dropped me off and picked me up to which I would like to give thanks for!

My original plan was to run:

• Day 1: Predicted 106km and ran 107.5km (ahead of moving time estimate by 2.5hrs inclusive of being lost for an hour)
• Day 2: Predicted 95km and ran 98km (ahead of moving time estimate by 1hrs)
• Day 3: Predicted 108km and ran/trudged 64.5km (Injury took hold and time went out the window)
• Day 4: Predicted 104km and trudged 67km
• Day 5: Predicted 62km and trudged 71km
• Day 6: Predicted 55km and trudged 57km
• Into Day 7: Predicted 0km and trudged 65km (Finishing 13 hours and 57 minutes over the 6 day plan)

If everything was to go to the original six-day plan, I would have minimal breaks of up to 1hr total, while moving during the day. And, to have at least 6 hours of sleep a night for as much recovery as possible. Due to being in such a bad way, I had to take each day as it came from the 3rd day onwards.

Stay tuned for part two of Burty’s journey in the next day or two!

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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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