© 2020 by Richard Avery.

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  • Richard Avery

A Windy Day At Northburn

24th February 2016. I’m running a slow paced, little run around the streets of Katanning. I have a hockey meeting tonight at 8pm, so I figure it is a good opportunity to come over early, go for a light run, then hit the gym for some strength training; focusing on my hip flexors, quads, hammy’s and calfs before the meeting.

I glance at my watch after it vibrates to tell me that I’ve just hit the 5km mark. “Woops, that’s a bit quick for a warm-up”. Then I realise that was the one; my 1,000th kilometre for the calendar year. I felt lighter and a big sense of pride overwhelmed me.

“You have got this man”. “You have trained a hell of a lot harder than most for this race. You’ve got this!”

For the first time since entering Northburn 100 back in September, I felt confident that I had the ability to knock it out in a half decent time. I had entered it to celebrate my 30th birthday, and at that time I remember thinking “wouldn’t it be cool to do it in 30 hours?”

I had trained my ass off for this event, and for the first time I was starting to think that maybe 30 hours was achievable.

Fast-forward three and a half weeks. Northburn Station. 4.30pm on the eve of the big day. I have just finished getting my gear checked, and am making my way to the race briefing. It feels like it’s been a long time since I’ve looked around the room before a race briefing and not known anyone. I was missing the pre-race banter I have enjoyed in the last year of WA ultra’s. I take a seat by myself and wait for briefing to get underway.

Before long, I can’t help but be intrigued by the conversation over my shoulder.

“Glenn will take this out don’t you think?”

“Yeah, well, either one of the Glenn’s will. Sutton or Kelly, but my money is on Sutton. He has the experience. Everyone I tipping Grant Guise but this is too far for him. He really struggled at UTMB last year”.

I recognised all these names form articles I had read, either on them personally or on the lead up to Northburn. I knew I wasn’t in this league anyway, but I still found it a very interesting conversation to be overhearing. I’ll keep my eye out for them tomorrow at the start line and make sure I’m well back.

Race briefing got underway and after all the usual aid station, medical, rubbish, drop bag stuff, they got into the course overview. I had studied the course fairly well, but over the next 10 minutes I had the confidence sucked right out of me. It started with a climb called “the fence line”, which starts around 12km into the course, and Terry the race director described it something along the lines of this.

‘So keep following the track up the hill and after a really steep bit there will be a marshal with water. Make sure you have plenty of water here. Then you are off track, following the fence line that they will direct you on. There is the odd sheep track but mostly you will have to make your own track. Just remember to keep the fence on your left. So follow it up the hill, then it gets really steep for a couple of 100m and you might be on all fours. Then at the top of that, the fence heads slightly to the left and heads up again. Then down, then up... then up again. Actually, I won’t describe this too much or you won’t come to the start line tomorrow. Just make sure you have plenty of water and keep the fence on the left’.

“The fence line” goes on for about 7km. From here the hills are never ending. I left the race briefing scared. “What the hell have I got myself into?”

I walked back to my rental car and noticed a missed call from my brother Fraser. When calling him back I bluntly said “just leaving now. I’m pretty keen to have a feed and get to bed”.

That night I had a shocker of a sleep. I was worried about everything, but mostly the weather and the hills.

Upon waking in the morning, I noticed we had had some rain. The skies were pretty clear and surprisingly warm however.

My nerves had settled a bit and I got about the pre-race routine. Drink, eat, drink, tape, vas, drink, dress, drink, eat, sunscreen, shoes and drink. Let’s go!

The start line was pretty un-eventful, but it was great having Fras, Shelley and the kids there to take my mind off the day(s) ahead and give me someone to talk to.

Underway and I found my groove very early on. There is only about 150m elv. gain/loss in the first 5km, so it’s a nice way to warm up. Towards the end of that loop I found people to talk to, and generally kept that up until the 70km mark.

The hills were steeper than I expected. I was feeling fine, but I just got a surprise at how steep they were considering the first 50km is the ‘flattest’. Because of this I just went slower. The fence line was where I first started to overtake people. I was really enjoying it. It was bloody tough but I wasn’t pushing myself too hard. I passed a few who looked like they had just finished 100 miles and I tried to give them some advice like I actually know what I’m doing. “Just chillout mate. Take your time. If you are feeling fine at the 150km mark you can always sprint the last 10km to make up time”.

After the fence line we traverse a section covered in Spinyard grass and that took a few more casualties. The descend down into a water course for a couple of hundred metres before hooking left up another gully to summit Mt Dunstan. This section is beautiful. I wasn’t pushing too hard, so in hindsight I wished I had got my phone out to take some pics.

The summit of Mt Dunstan was the first taste of the wind for the day. Most runners were stopping to put more clothes on, but I knew we descended pretty quick and should be out of it soon, which we were. After some more traversing on very uneven and shrubby ground, we were back onto a four-wheel drive track for “the big down”. This was pretty well named as its about 13km of straight downhill running. I would have loved to have done the 50km race and really flown down here, but I took my time to preserve my legs. About 3 or 4 people went past me in this section, but I wasn’t too worried. At the bottom of this we get about 1km form the marquee before heading off on “the loop of deception”, an 11km loop with sharp climbs and descents to finish off the first 50km. This was a great social part of the run for me. I met a great guy and enjoyed some good conversation during this loop.

A quick stop at the marquee to have a sandwich and get my poles and I’m off on the next 50km loop. Fras walked with me for about 1km which was great. He told me I was in about 15th place, so I was pretty happy with that. Because of the hills, I was going a bit slower than I thought I would, so 30 hours looked like a big ask at this stage.

The second 50k loop starts off with “the death climb”, 15k of climbing all that was lost in “the big down”. I was really enjoying the poles on this section as it is pretty straight forward, just a hell of a lot of climbing. Just before the end I could see the track snake it’s way around the corner in a very steep angle. I didn’t take too much notice of this section as I was just trying to slog it out. It turns out I would be back here in “the loop of despair”. More on that later.

Up at the top of this steep part we descend down to the main aid station on the mountain, TW. They informed us of a course change due to the wind. It would add an extra 1km to the course but keep us out of the wind as we climb leaning rock. Far-out am I please for this change. The wind was some of the worst I have ever been in. I twice tripped myself up as the wind was blowing my feet around. Poles were useless as they were getting blown all over the place. It was just bloody tough going. I was still feeling good mentally so managed to slog it out up leaning rock and back down.

More descending before another long slog up Mt Horne. By this stage I was alone and spent more effort double checking that I was on course. The climb up Mt Horne felt like it went on forever. I don’t know if it was the loneliness or what, but it was a long climb.

Into Mt Horne aid station and descend down the other side. I got a big surprise again at how steep it was. From the top of Mt Horne the Clyde Dam looks miles away. Before long we are just about swimming it in.

Still all alone as the sun sets, I make a quick stop to put on my head torch. I was a bit disappoint to have to stop as I was covering the ground well and wanted to keep the rhythm going. By this time the main descent is done and I’m back on four-wheel drive track going up, down, up, down above the bank of the dam back towards Cromwell and then into the marquee. So I keep my poles out for the ascents and hold in the middle in one hand for the descents. The wrist bands on the poles have little reflector strips on them, which are annoying me when I’m holding the poles in one hand. After complaining to myself about this for a few minutes, I switch the way I carry them around, meaning points forward. I’ve never carried them this way around before and in reality it makes no difference what so ever, but at the time you could have sworn someone had taken away my basic human rights.

10 or 15 minutes of complaining to myself about how bad it is carrying my poles the opposite way around, and I realised that I still hadn’t had any sympathy, so it was time to forget about it.

Back to the marquee at the 100km mark at just after 10pm. Fras was there to help out and trying to get me back out quickly, but I had already decided I wanted a 10-minute break to get some food, change tops and charge my watch battery.

Nothing was tasting good by this stage and it was a real battle to get anything down. He had bought a powerade, which was a great change from water.

Off we head for the last 60km with an avocado sandwich, back all the way up over Mt Horne and on to TW. About half way up, I stop to attend to some chaffing. Back into it, but I am finding myself having work harder and harder. The lack of calorie intake is taking its toll.

Once at TW, I spend a bit of time familiarising myself with the course map again. “Shit! I didn’t realise the loop of despair included that massive climb from the death climb”. And so I headed out on to do “the loop of despair”. An 11km loop where you lose nearly 1,000m altitude in the first 8km, then gain it all back in the last 3km. Shit it is tough. The wind, the cold, the dark, the loneliness. The tussocks are so thick that I can’t really use my poles. That much climbing in 3km is bloody tough at the best of times. But in the early hours of the morning I found it incredibly tough going. Every little rise I would think, “yep, this is the top now”, only to find another big climb ahead. Finally, back into TW, a little wet from a shower of rain minutes earlier.

Smashing some pumpkin soup down and working up the enthusiasm to finish this bloody thing at 2am is a tough gig. I see a few runners coming in to TW to head off to start the loop of despair. “Poor bastards”.

“Right. Let’s do this”. A quick trip up and back to leaning rock, followed by a steep watercourse section and then it’s pretty much all downhill.

The trip up to leaning rock was bloody windy again. This time I felt the cold so stopped again quickly to put my rain coat on. No sooner am I back going and I see a head-torch heading my way. As It gets closer I realise it is Jean Beaumont, arguably one of NZ’s best female 100 mile runners. I’m guessing she’s leading the lady’s division at present.

Trying to do the maths in my head as to how far behind her I am, I spot another light, then another right behind. The first one is Glenn Sutton. He yells out in the gusty wind as we pass, “well done buddy”. The next didn’t say anything, but he was wrapped up in his coat and I could only just make out his face.

The adrenaline started to pour through my veins as I near the top of leaning rock. The marshal seems keen for a yarn, but I make sure he has taken down my number, grab a handful of potato chips, and head off back down the same track.

The wind is so strong, but it doesn’t affect me as much this time as I’m fired up and keen to catch the guys in front of me.

Back down the track, maybe 4km from the turnaround at leaning rock, we via off the main track and follow a steep sheep track down into a water course. I was only 100m or so behind my first victim at this point. I fly past him as he carefully walks down the steep section. I say “G’day”, but not much of response. I realise he is an Asian bloke and assume he doesn’t have the best English.

The focus now turns to Glenn. I know he’s a good runner and if I can catch him and finish in front of him, I’ll be so happy.

As I descend down the steep terrain, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by how well I am doing, and how great the body is feeling. “Only 25km to go. Give it everything”. On top of that, I’m thinking about the course ahead. Just the one major climb back out of the water course, then a big downhill, followed by a steady 6km climb, then a cruisey decent down into the finish at the marque.

Meanwhile, I’m losing altitude very quickly. I am very surprised at how far down we have come, knowing full well that we need to climb it all over again. I take this opportunity to grab a gel to ensure I have some energy in the tank to make the accent.

Only just having finished the gel and picking the pace back up again, I suddenly come to an even steeper section, where I look down and see a head light making its way down the scree.

“That’s Glenn. Wow, I caught him quick”.

As I neared, he turns to me and says “far out you are flying buddy! Good stuff”.

“I’m pretty keen to finish this thing. Thanks mate. Good luck”, I reply.

By this point I’m buzzing. I really feel like I’m mixing with the big boys. I have run early in races with some good runners before, but never at the business end. I just need to hold this until the finish.

Literally only one minute after passing Glenn, my headlight starts to flash to alert me that the battery is flat.

“Far out! Now I’m going to look like a dickhead stopping as he passes me again”. I decide to keep going until it flashes again to try and get a bit more of a lead. It’s starting to get hot, sheltered from the wind on the westerly side of the mountain, so I decide that I’ll take my coat off too. It will be cold back up at TW, but I’m not planning on hanging around for long.

A few minutes later, it flashes again. “Right, make this quick”. And it was. I have never taken my vest off so quick. Ripped my coat off, packed back in my vest, taken out the new battery and swapped over, remembering at the last second to put the old battery back in my vest.

Turning my head torch back on, I look back up the hill to see if Glenn had caught me again. No sign of him. I’m really fired up at this point.

Down another steep descent, all off track, around a corner, and I spot a little tent with a bloke lying in his sleeping bag reading a book in the light of his head torch.

“Great, that’s the bottom of the descent. Just two more climbs to go. C’mon!”

“Number 6” I yell out to the marshal. “Good on ya number 6. Just take it easy sidling across this next bit ah. It’s pretty full on”.

“Yeah no worries. Thanks mate” I yell back as I pass the tent. There was no way I was stopping for a yarn.

He was right. The next bit was pretty knarly. I’m kind of pleased that it was dark so I couldn’t see down. The race director had put ropes along the top side to give us something to hang onto as we traverse across the steep terrain.

Finally, onto a track and back into ascending. I’m feeling pumped, but I know this is a big climb, maybe 7 or 800m of vertical back to TW. I pull the poles back out and turn on the tunes to help with the climb.

I’m setting a crazy pace. I think to myself that I probably can’t keep this pace all the way back to TW, but I’ll give it a crack. I’m gonna finish this with nothing left in the tank. And if I can catch Jean in the process, that’s a bonus.

Trying to do the maths in my head as to my position in the race, I get confused if its 6th or 7th, either way I couldn’t be happier.

Occasionally I notice a light in front. “Is that her?” I’m not too sure if it is her light or just a reflection from the track markers.

Before too long, maybe half way up the climb, I notice a light well up in front. “Yep, that’s her”.

“Far out, I can reel her in”. I notice that she keeps looking back at me as her headlight would shine in my eyes every 30 seconds or so. After ten minutes or so of chasing, I find myself only a few meters behind her.

By this time, we are back into the wind. This time going straight into it. I find the easiest way to push into it is to lean way forward and bend at the hips, reach well forward with my poles and just keep slogging up the hill.

“How are ya going” I yell out through the wind. “Not as good as you” she yells back. Not really thinking to creatively, I repeat the same line as I spat out to Glenn “I’m just keen to get this thing done”.

“Good on you” she replies.

Another ten minutes or so later and I notice we are nearing TW. “Bloody good. That wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be”, referring to the climb from the water course.

Once again, I’m so pumped. The pride is overwhelming. I’m in either 5th or 6th place and on track for a finish around the 28hr mark. “Far out! You’ve done this man”. For the first time in the last 25 or so hours, I let myself think about the end of the race. I was nearly there.

I quickly reminded myself that I had over 20km to go. Mostly all tough descent. So don’t stuff it up now.

I power into TW. “Number 6” I yell out to the marshal to make sure they record my loop.

“Thanks number 6. You did that fast!” “Yeah I’m in a hurry” I yell back as approaching the horse float with food and drink in it.

“Good on you. What does your drop bag look like?”

“Na, just give me some coke”.

“Are you sure? Its still 21km to the finish!” The marshal states.

“Like I say, I’m in a hurray”. “What position am I?” I say as I screw my lid back on my bottle.

“You are doing well. Not many have been through. I’ll just check” he replies.

“Na its fine. I’m outta here” I yell back as leaving the aid station.

Fired up, and having already run most of this descent earlier in the race, I decide to smash it out as fast as possible. Don’t worry about protecting the legs.

I pass a lot of runners heading up the track to TW. I yell out “G’day”, and some of them start saying something, but I’m moving too quick for anything more than “good luck” from me.

Before long, I’m back at Mt Horne aid station.

“Give me as much coke as you’ll let me take please! What position am I in? And How long ago did the last bloke leave?” I yell as coming into the aid station.

“Well the last guy left about 2 minutes ago, and he was 4th. So that makes you fifth” One marshal replies.

“Shit, Righto. Can I have that?” I state as I point to a bottle of coke with a few hundred mls in the bottom.

“Sure. Want more?” he replies as reaching under the table for more.

“Na, I’m outta here”, I rushly state as pouring the last of the bottle into mine.

Out of the aid station at a million miles. “I’m gonna catch this bugger!”

Literally straight away I spot him walking and chewing on a mucslie bar.

“Hey mate”, I yell out as approaching.

“Hey, well done” he replies as I run past.

“You too. Nearly there”.

I spot a rabbit crouch down in a rut. “Ha, a rabbit” I yell back to him as I avoid the little guy less than a meter from my stride.

“Yeah that’s the second one I’ve seen” he says.

Back to the business of descending this hill. “Concentrate” I keep telling myself. I run pretty much as fast as my tired body will let me. I have my eyes on the track in front of me but my mind is focused on 3rd place. “Imagine if I caught 3rd?” “Wow!”

Flying down the hill as fast as I can, I kick a rock really hard with my left big toe and nearly trip over. “Shit that hurt! Concentrate dickhead!” I yell out to myself. It’s still a long way to run on a broken ankle!

I start to notice the light in the sky and the red clouds. Absolutely beautiful. All those sunrises I’ve seen during my training; this is by far the most special. The red clouds look angry. I know there is forecasts of rain today. All the more reason to smash this out quickly.

Back into brewery aid station. “Wow, you have passed a lot of people” one of the marshals says to me.

“Yeah. I’m in a hurry. How far in front is 3rd?”

“Ahhh, he left 21 minutes ago” she says looking at her note book.

“Thanks. Can I fill this with coke?” I ask.

Doing the maths, I realise I’m going to have to run this last 13km section nearly 1min 30sec per kilometre faster than him. That’s a big ask.

The fatigue and heat being at the bottom of the hill started to get to me as I climb my way back out of brewery creek. It’s a solid power walking pace, but nothing special. 6km of climbing followed by 6km of descending is all that is left. Can I catch him? I know deep down I probably can’t, but I’m going to finish this having given it a bloody good crack.

At the top of the climb I spot another marshal. “How far in front is the next bloke” I yell out.

“Oh probably 3km. He left about 20mins ago”.

“Thanks mate” I reply. Quietly guttered that he had done so well, but stoked to be looking like taking 4th spot as I haven’t seen anyone behind me, and I can see a good couple of kilometres.

The descent was steeper than I expected. Definitely steeper than the ascent. I walk the really steep part as my legs were shot.

Down the bulk of the descent and I realise that I’m only a few km from the finish as I via onto the track ascending the beginning of the third lap. I pass a few people heading up the track to start their third lap. “Poor bustards” I think to myself. Then round the corner I spot a runner heading towards me by himself. Its Wayne. “Sweet, he’s still going, but he’s got a long day ahead of him.”

“Looking sharp man. Just keep pushing on. Good luck” I yell out as I approach. He replies with “well done mate, keep going”.

“Oh, I couldn’t be happier” as we high five passing each other.

Only 2.5km to go and I’m struggling to keep my emotions together. In fact, the only thing that’s stopping me from bursting into tears is all the other runners, marshals and supporters that I keep seeing and having to keep a brave face for.

Down to the main road and making my way back up a little climb. For the last 27 and a half hours I would have walked this, but this close from the finish there is no stopping me. Along the final straight. My legs are hurting, but I’m so happy. Finally nearing the end of the straight I spot three figures come around the corner. It’s Fras and his two boys. The boys are jumping and yelling. Oliver sprints towards me and I reach up to turn off my mp3 player.

“Hey mate, thanks for running with me”. I proudly say.

“Wow, you are awesome uncle Rich”.

Then I approach Fras. Not knowing what to say to express how happy and grateful I am, I just hold up my four fingers of my right hand. “Fourth place bro. I’m so happy!”

“Oh well done bro, you have done so well. We only just got here and realised you were so close so ran straight out here. Well done mate”, he proudly replies.

“I couldn’t have done it without you mate. Thanks so much for everything”.

We round the corner, down through the creek and up the other side toward the marquee. I use my poles to keep the momentum up the hill going.

To the left of the finish line I spot Shelley filming on her phone and yelling support. To the right of the track I see Stacey, who had flown in as a surprise to see me finish. “What are you doing here?” I say with a massive smile on my face.

“I’ll just finish first”. Across the finish line, I then turn back to give her a hug.

Far out it feels good to be finished. 27 hours 34 minutes to complete 10,428m of elevation gain and loss, across 160km; arguably the toughest ultra in the Southern Hemisphere. Couldn’t be happier.

A massive thank you to Stacey for flying in to see me finish and doing some very smelly washing the following day. Not to mention putting up with me getting up at stupid o’clock to drive to the Stirling’s for training runs, to try and make it back to work by 8am. To Fras, Shelley, Oliver and Quinn; thank you so much for your support and assistance on race day. Without you it would have been a whole lot tougher. Thank you to my sister Ally for all the many hundreds of messages of support from afar. Likewise, Mum and Dad, together with instilling in me a passion for the mountains from a young age. Without our family adventures when I was young, I’m sure I wouldn’t have this drive and attraction to the hills and to push myself.

A huge thank you all the support from everyone on Facebook, email and in person leading up to, during and after the event. It really means a lot. Thanks to my good friend Matt for lending me his spare head torch battery, I’m not too sure what I would have done without it.

And finally, thank you to the WA ultra-running community. I live and train in a small town, where no one really gets what I do and why I do it. To have an amazing community in WA that I catch up with every month or so, together with huge support on Strava and Facebook means so much to me. 99% of my training is solo, so there’s lots of opportunities to give up or develop negative thoughts of what it is I’m trying to do. Without the support of the WA ultra community I would struggle to push myself as hard during training as I did; particularly after pulling out at the Australia Day Ultra.

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