Running in New Zealand – The Northburn 100
The ultra running community makes the world a small place. I met Lisa Tamati at Badwater 2009. Actually, I didn’t formally meet her. We were both standing at the awards presentation and I noticed her adorable skirt and top coordinated perfectly with her Badwater buckle. I also noticed her feet looked better than mine after our epic 135 mile race.
I met her again in India 2011 where we were both attempting to tackle La Ultra The High 138 non-stop race in the Himalayas. I got to know her better there as we all had to hang out with our crews for a few weeks to acclimate for that adventure. I had a renewed respect for her as we both struggled to complete that incredible adventure.
Lisa invited me to come to her Northburn Station 100 mile race in New Zealand. She invited me, my crew and Ray Sanchez, our fellow Badwater/La Ultra runner and adventurer. Ray and I took her up on her offer, and grabbed flights in March, just 8 months after running in India.
It was worth the trip.
Northburn Station 100 is an exotic trek into the wilds of New Zealand. Don’t expect to run long sections of this course… 26,000 feet of elevation gain will keep you from that, unless of course you have the talent of Ray or other iron legged top endurance runners- you know who you are! I know what I am made of and I was very happy to go into the race having a 48 hour cutoff.
The trick to getting to New Zealand when you fly from the states is remembering that you lose a whole day. I left Las Vegas Monday evening and climbed off the plane Wednesday. What happened to Tuesday??? Stolen by the International dateline and probably hidden away by those elusive tribal Maorie’s (NZ’s indigenous people).
Arriving into Queenstown make your way about 45 minutes, into Cromwell, the home of Northburn Station owned by Tom Pinckney. There you will find “The Shed”. I expected the name but found paradise, a picturesque cottage that held a sophisticated bar and dining room complete with their own label of incredible wine…. Oh yeah…back to the race. The scene was idyllic when I first arrived. Calm beautiful weather and scenery. No snakes, no bears, no mountain lions, no cougars, only sheep, cows, and prickly Spaniards. I didn’t expect rain, hail, snow (did I mention it was summer?) Oh, and 80 mile per hour winds.
This race was so difficult. At the top peak I was yelling “This is sooo Awesome!” The views were amazing. I felt like I was on the top of the world. Then, a huge gust of wind flipped me sideways and I proceeded to twist my ankle. I stopped at a checkpoint to tape my Achilles which had begun to throb. I knew the 100 mile distance was no longer an option but was hoping to drag myself to a 50K completion. I realized the challenge was just beginning. Game not over yet.
The second big gust scared me. It literally pushed me over. I was shocked and thinking that I never would have believed that NZ could have winds with this power! Slowly the clouds started to cover my path. Big thick billowing mists turned into a white-out. Visibility went down to a few yards, very quickly. It was the first time I really felt fear in a race….just for a second. I was reassured by the pole lines that the race management team had securely fastened in the ground over the mountain. They had put them so close together that earlier I had wondered why they were so close. Smart thinking! I was also glad I had my survival blanket tucked into my pack. I realized if things got worse I could be reduced to huddling inside a group of rocks wrapped in foil!
Out of the mist I suddenly saw two shadows….gradually growing bigger. By then big clumps of rain and sleet were pouring on me. Two medical rescue workers came up to me and asked how I was doing. I said, “Fine, Can I continue?” I had to yell to be heard in the wind. They told me to follow the pole lines and get into the vehicle at the end of the poles…I yelled, “Can I continue?” One of the medical guys was wiping rain off his glasses. He said, “No go sit in the car and wait for us. Have you seen any runners behind you?” I told them I hadn’t seen any runners for hours since leaving the last checkpoint. Off they went with their radios squawking into the mist. They disappeared and I was alone again.
I got to their vehicle and climbed in. It was nice to be out of the cold and wind but 15 mins later I wondered how long I would be sitting there. I was glad they were checking on the runner behind me but I knew they would be a while. Mean while my muscles started feeling cramped and I was shivering. I pulled my thermal top out of my pack and put it on. I leaned up to the front and cranked on the heat. Then I took the time to eat but realized I had no water left and didn’t find any in the emergency vehicle. About 45 minutes later I saw 3 shapes moving towards the car. First they were little ghostly images then big darker images headed for the car coming out of the fog. It was so eerie that I took a couple of pictures.
After the guys got into the car they told us we could continue and drove down to another opening in the fence where more runners were huddled into cars. All runners at that point had been rounded up into emergency vehicles. They told us that we were allowed to continue but we had to stick together and go down. They said the winds were still really bad and a vehicle would be slowly following us down the trail.
I can’t believe how hard it was to get out of that car. Not only psychologically because I was really shivering even with the heat full blast but also I could hardly push the car door open it was blowing so hard. The runner I was with hesitated before leaving the vehicle. She asked how far it was to the finish. She seemed unsure of continuing. She asked me how I felt. I said COLD and getting out of that warm car was the last thing on earth that I wanted to do! The emergency guys were ready to drive down so it was out the door we went. They had a tub of water to refill my bottle but the water was so cold splashing over my hand that I decided dehydration was better than freezing my insides. I stuck the bottle of water in my waist pack and turned towards the wind. The wind hit us so hard that 2 of the medical workers physically pushed a runner onto the trail. I was wondering if we would be able to keep going. It was part amazement and unbelief that I kept putting one foot in front of the other without flying away.
During the storm it was a giant hassle to try to reach into by backpack to get something to eat. I was just trying to survive the elements. In the worst of the wind storm I was eating IsaDelights by Isagenix which I had stuck in my pocket….I love those squares, they are easy to eat when you are in a jam and they are prefect nutrition in a pinch.
This was the ultimate adventure. We descended as a group with the gusts still at hurricane force. You couldn’t hear each other speak. You just hunkered down and tried not to blow away. We were all like staggering drunks leaning into the wind for balance. Then the rain hit, full on bucket loads.. We we’re running in a flooded muddy road. Shoes soaked. I was never so happy to finish a 50K in my life. I am in complete awe at the runners who made it further. It was an inspiring site. I headed to the medical tent at the start-finish line and the nurse said that my Achilles tendon could not have taken another loop.
Terry Davis, the race director, did warn us at the race briefing about the unpredictable weather on the island. It can change within minutes. I thought carrying the required survival blanket and extra mandatory clothing was a bit over kill until I was scrambling at the first peak to pull it out. Mountaineering skills are a plus in this race. New Zealand Kiwi’s are a hardy bunch. They are the most authentic, kind, and welcoming people. But, don’t let that fool you. Behind their easy going nature they get a lot of entertainment watching all of us unknowing foreigners attempting to play in their backyard. Congratulations all you awesome Northburn 100 runners, staff and volunteers. I’ll be back next year…. with my survival blanket and gear!!
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