Head and feet above the rest

22 March 2019 - posted by Nicole Glover

It’s set amongst the dazzling Central Otago plains. It’s also touted as the toughest 100 miles in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Northburn 100 is a gruelling ultra-marathon, only attempted by the strong, tireless, and frenetically brave. One 2019 competitor in particular is close to our Formthotics heart – Nicola (Gus) Benzie, our Finance & Commercial Manager here at HQ.

We’ll let Gus take you through the experience, first-hand.

What makes this race tough? It’s 161kms, 10,000m of vertical climbing, and the weather is extreme – from scorching temperatures to gale-force, freezing winds up in the mountains.

Knowing this, why did I do it? I think a certain level of unhinged passion for the sport (and life), comes into it. When you think about it, who would pay money to spend days doing this torturous event? For me though, there’s something special in achieving a goal that most people wouldn’t consider, let alone attempt. I love being out in the wilderness, miles from civilisation, with everything I need on my back, anticipating and overcoming obstacles.

How do I train? I do long, back-to-back runs every single weekend. I also stretch and do mobility daily, including a yin yoga every week. To back up my flexibility work I incorporate regular strength training, all topped off with a glass of wine to celebrate key, training milestones. Training for Northburn particularly involves a lot of time spent in the hills, getting thousands of metres of vertical climbs under my belt, and upping leg strength in the race environment. Almost more importantly, I train my mind. Keeping positive thoughts flowing is a real exercise in perseverance and mental agility – there’s no room for doubts. The two things I protect most during a race are my feet and my head – these are the things critical to getting you across the finish line.

How do I race? I always start slow. Northburn starts with a gentle 5km loop which I treat as my warmup. This is then followed by a 45km loop, a 50km loop and a third 60km loop, all above the valley. It’s a matter of not overdoing it and maintaining your calorie and fluid intake. For me, eating gets more and more difficult as the day progresses, so it’s important I get solid food into my system while I can. After the ten-hour mark is when I start relying more on liquid fuel.

Because of the high temperatures this year, there was a lot of ‘competitor carnage’ on Saturday afternoon. When I was heading up the aptly named, “The Death Climb”, the temperatures were well into the mid 30’s (Celsius) and had been for most of the day. My heart rate was climbing, and I knew immediately I needed to slow down and take it easy – I reassured myself I could make up the time in the cool of the evening. Despite all racers being heavily experienced, the heat was taking its toll. It wasn’t a pretty scene – athletes littered over the side of the hill vomiting, cramping, crying. Race crew were making repeated trips, pulling those who had run into trouble off the mountain and back to medical professionals. As the orange haze of sunset turned into inky black of night, I started to pick up my pace. Continuing to come across other athletes cramping on the side of the track, I felt strong enough to help where I could and alert the medics of their location. Whilst the race was over for many of my compatriots, I felt strong in beginning my slow ascent of The Death Climb.

The feeling wouldn’t last long, however. Just before dawn, I started having trouble getting solid food down and I found I had no more liquid fuel with me. I put my head down and kept going, but my mood started falling with the dawn temperature. As I reached the transition station, I wanted to stop – I knew what lay ahead and I didn’t believe my legs would cope. I still had 60km to go and 5,000 vertical metres to climb. That feat would be tough with fresh legs, but I’d already been moving for 101km and 5,000 vertical metres up. I’d also completed this race 2 years before, so I knew just how tough this loop was going to be. I told my pacer that I was done, I was quitting. She smiled, putting some fresh socks, Formthotics and shoes on my feet. I told my partner that I wasn’t going on – he gave me a hug and put a cup of hot soup in my hand. I told the Race Director I just couldn’t be bothered anymore, he laughed and gave me a sweet cup of coffee. Before I knew what was happening, I was out in the third loop and the new day.

To this day, I don’t know how I finished that race. It wasn’t pretty. My asthma had flared up, I was struggling keeping food down and my spirits were low during most of the last loop. I put my head down, reminded myself of that ‘finish-line feeling’ and kept little bites and sips going in. After 30km I met a supporter called George, telling him that I didn’t have anything left in my body. He laughed and told me that my body could do it. Within 15 minutes, the difficulties I’d been facing for the last 30-40km vanished – I felt good again. I set a great pace through the next section, which is the most technical leg of the race. Then, it was the 10km downhill before getting sent back uphill again, just to make sure we had absolutely nothing left in our legs! It wasn’t until I powered through this last section, with a good, steady pace, that I realised that I was really going to finish. I’d surprised even myself with my grit and determination to give everything to achieve this goal.

As I crossed the finish line, I exclaimed words that many athletes before me have shouted – “never again!”. I was tired, dirty, and in pain, but I was elated I had defeated my self-doubt. I had completed a race that earlier in the day I was ready to give up on. I can’t always put into words why I do these events, but I do know that I love the full experience. Despite my emphatic declarations of ‘never again’, I do know I‘ll be back a third time.