I was a skinny, intense kid with a physique and temperament suited to distance running and very little else. Like all young runners from the South of England, I began by racing road and cross-country. There were no mountains where I lived and trail running hadn’t been invented at that time. After ten years of training I managed 64 minutes for a half marathon, which I see as mediocre but most runners would, I guess, view in a more positive light. I ran my first mountain race in New Zealand in December 1998, on Mount Roy just outside Wanaka, and was hooked almost instantly. I can’t really compare running on the roads to running in the mountains. It’s like trying to compare the MacDonald’s Drive-In to hunting down and killing an animal, butchering it, and serving it up as a tasty meal. The two are that different.
Those to whom the sport of mountain running is important are getting a little tired of the clean-cut and highly-sponsored athletes who currently plague the web in a seemingly endless stream of glamorous trail running movies. But the heroes of these films, who seem to spend most of their down time either slack-lining or extreme-skiing, will never look you in the eye. The films are stripped of all emotional content and impact. The seductive power of this new form of marketing seems to have the singular desire to replace competition and hard work and with posing and a romanticized view of the mountains. The uninformed get a thrilling ride, but it’s fiction passing itself off as reality and it makes me ill.
All of which is in huge contrast to the film of race director Terry Davis’s cheerful descent into madness (or is it simply pure unadulterated suffering?) as he reccies the Northburn Station 100 mile course. It’s not just entertaining and informative, it is bold; it is esoteric. There is something fascinating and truly inspiring about his endeavor. So to say that I am excited about running this yea’rs Northburn is an epic understatement. I’ve already bought the Race T-Shirt and broken in a couple of pairs of North Face Hayasa shoes in readiness. On the evidence of this short piece of film, Northburn is clearly one of the world’s most extraordinary and under-rated mountain running races.
Ernest Hemingway wrote that the majority of sports are at best a diversion. He thought the only true and genuine sports were those involving a high probability of suffering and a genuine risk of injury or death. In that case, I am sure Hemingway would have approved of ultra-running and found much therein to write about. Although I think it would have been more likely to find him squaring up to an enraged and severely weakened Spanish fighting bull than toeing the line at Northburn.
The Northburn 100 is not a modern, fast-food, homogenized American-style running race. It doesn’t go out of it’s way to render convenience. Elite athletes are not permitted pacers. There two aid stations on each of the three laps: at the start/finish line and halfway round. So it is probably advisable to ensure that your two drop-bags are extremely well-stocked. Additional liquid refreshment is to be found en-route when crossing streams and creeks. There are good tracks, and there’s also a lot of tussock and rock and many possibilities to go off course if the concentration wavers.
It is the purist, semi-self-sufficient ethos of Northburn that attracts me. That and 8000 meters of ascent and descent over barren and rugged mountains. There’s something almost biblical about the high country of Central Otago, as if a locust plague has removed everything green and life-giving. It’s New Zealand’s driest place and yet susceptible to sudden changes in weather and plummeting temperatures that can turn your average calorie-depleted runner into a popsicle. I love it there. I have spent many fine hours running in the nearby Pisa and Crown Ranges and look forward to an extended tour of their easterly cousins.
We Brits are currently the Jamaican Bobsledders of ultra-running (apart from Lizzie Hawker, that is, who is one of the toughest and the most influential athletes of her generation). And I am probably too old to change any of that. I believe there are only so many really intense, top-class performances within a person, and I have been lucky up to now. I have raced many remarkable marathons in the mountains, and ran several longer routes of an uncommonly high order. At some point I will slow down. I am already a few years past my predicted expiration date. I am not a sponsored athlete, so I am not obliged to perform when I don’t want to. You’ll never find me grinding my teeth before a race. To me it’s a game and it’s a test and it’s how I live my life. And Northburn is me sticking my skinny neck out; an attempt to push myself a little further without exceeding my abilities.
Charles Bukowski wrote a great poem about reinventing yourself. I went from road runner to mountain runner and now, this coming March, I will attempt to become an ultra runner. Northburn will by my first attempt to race over a hundred. I’ve ran a a few ultras before. The Kepler twice – once well and once badly. And also a 60km race in the French Alps last October where I summoned up a course record from God-knows-where and may have contracted the ultra-running bug after so many years of reticence and procrastination.
Having never raced for more than 60 km, I am guaranteed to go out at Northburn too fast, however slow I think I am going. I am sure to run into trouble long before the end: quite possibly on the infamous “Loop of Despair” or, if I am lucky and have the stomach for it, a little later on the final “Horrible Death Climb”. Given the duration and intensity of stress I am likely to impose upon myself, Northburn will be an interesting psychological journey. It won’t be a glorious transcendental experience. It won’t be a path to enlightenment. I’m not a Ronin, roaming the wild land alone, punishing my body to perfect my soul and thinking grandiose thoughts all the while. As fatigue works it’s magic on my senses, the acid will shut down my body capillary by capillary. I will be exhausted deep into my bones and spirit. Success will depend ultimately on whether or not I am willing to take the punishment the race will inflict; on whether or not my mind caves in. But because I know there will be such consequences, it keeps me honest and it keeps me scared. It keeps the preparation disciplined, the training hard, the thinking focused, and the strategy sharp. I won’t get away with slacking off. Two hundred plus kilometers a week for the next month; four to six hour marathons every weekend. All so that by the end of Northburn I am, like Terry Davies, full and free of the need to do the thing that nourishes me for a while.
Invent yourself and then reinvent yourself,
don’t swim in the same slough.
invent yourself and then reinvent yourself
and stay out of the clutches of mediocrity.
invent yourself and then reinvent yourself,
change your tone and shape so often that they can
never categorize you.
reinvigorate yourself and
accept what is
but only on the terms that you have invented
and reinvent your life because you must;
it is your life and
and the present
belong only to
“No Leaders Please” by Charles Bukowski.
Northburn 100mile video’s by Terry Davis