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Conquering Northburn 100: A Journey of Perseverance and Support

By: Campbell Willis - RVP Athlete

The Northburn 100 miler is an ultra marathon set amidst the breathtaking landscape of Central Otago, spanning one of the largest Merino sheep stations in the nation. With its formidable vertical challenges, both uphill and downhill, there’s no escaping the raw elements of nature.

Despite two previous attempts in 2013 and 2016, where victory eluded me, the allure of Northburn never faded from my mind. In 2024, fueled by an unwavering determination, I was more resolved than ever to conquer this ultimate test of endurance.

Nearly seven years had passed since my last endeavour. Still, finally, everything fell into place: with the assurance of long service leave, the steadfast backing of my wife Tanya, and the invaluable guidance from Jamie at Run Vault Performance, I embarked on what promised to be the most monumental challenge in my ultrarunning adventures.

Months of relentless training, methodical preparation, and unshakeable resolve had brought me to this moment. As I stood on the brink of the journey, I harboured a blend of respect for the course ahead and an innate assurance, a deep-seated belief that this was my moment to shine.

Without hesitation, my Dad offered to drive me to the starting line of Northburn in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Considering the health hurdles he’d faced over the past year, I cherished this gesture, understanding its significance all too well. He’d been a steadfast presence throughout every attempt, and having both him and Mum there to witness the journey added another layer of motivation to finish what I had started.

Standing at the start line, I embraced a calm acceptance, positioning myself at the back of the pack, intent on running my own race. As we embarked on the course, greeted by the sun and rugged terrain, the raw beauty of nature became evident. Amidst the stunning scenery, I felt a profound vitality and gratitude for the opportunity to return to Northburn.

Loop One

In the first loop, I concentrated on pacing, staying mindful of nutrition and hydration, and keeping a steady effort. I felt strong on the uphills and managed the downhill sections well. With my mantra, “Be at my feet,” I stayed present, avoiding getting ahead of myself.

Mentally ticking off each leg of the journey, I maintained control and felt at ease amidst the challenge. Towards the end of the first loop, I tackled the renowned loop of deception. It was a demanding section with challenging climbs, technical descents, and the heat. I encountered my first hurdle of the day as my stomach rebelled. Negative thoughts crept in, but I focused on reaching the checkpoint, understanding the importance of connecting with loved ones, and resetting for Loop 2.

Upon reaching the checkpoint, a momentary panic gripped me as I couldn’t spot my crew immediately. A reassuring call to Mum confirmed they were nearby, and a pep talk from Terry encouraged me to take things slow and not rush back into the heat. Finding shade, sipping on some trusty ginger beer, and connecting with loved ones provided the much-needed boost. With renewed spirits, I was prepared to tackle Loop 2.

Loop 2

Loop 2 presented the daunting challenge of the infamous death climb, a gruelling 14-kilometre ascent to Leaning Rock, the course’s highest point. This climb had been my undoing in previous attempts, but I approached it with newfound determination and resilience this time.

Joining forces with another runner towards the top, Amanda, whom I had connected with before the race, enhanced the journey. Reaching the summit at Leaning Rock, I was greeted by awe-inspiring views, filling me with profound gratitude for the opportunity to be there and pursue my passion. I felt a deep connection to myself, my community, and the land beneath my feet—a remarkable sensation.

Entering the Water Race, a famed section I’d only heard stories about, I felt energized and navigated smoothly. As the sun set on the first day, I ascended to TW aid station, marking my return to the top of the course. Departing TW, I descended toward Cromwell but soon felt discomfort in my right ankle. With each downhill stretch, the pain worsened, challenging my mental resilience.

The final stretch of this loop is the ‘pylon track,’ characterised by endless undulations and switchbacks that seemed to stretch on indefinitely. In the early morning hours, fatigue and doubts began to creep in, leading me to question again if this would end in another did-not-finish (DNF) scenario.

Then, I took a step back from my thoughts, reassessing my position in the race and reminding myself that all I needed to do was complete the loop. As I approached the last few kilometres, I felt a renewed determination to see this through to the end, proudly committing myself to continuing onto Loop 3.

Feeling a bit disoriented at the checkpoint, but with Tanya’s comforting words and guidance, I gathered myself and prepared for the final loop. I couldn’t help but feel grateful and filled with love for Tanya, who was there in the early morning hours, supporting me despite little sleep and helping me pursue my dreams. After a brief nap, I acknowledged that it would be a tough day ahead, bid farewells, and ventured into uncharted territory—the start of Loop 3.

Loop 3

The loop commenced with a challenging ascent to Mt. Horn and onwards to TW, covering 17 kilometres, with 15 of those kilometres uphill. Despite the daunting terrain, I persevered, uplifted by the encouragement of the dedicated volunteers and the unwavering support from friends and family afar. Reaching TW for the second time, I braced myself for the demanding Loop of Despair.

At 127 kilometres into the race and struggling to maintain pace on the downhill sections, I summoned every ounce of determination to continue onward, fully aware that each step brought me closer to the finish line. Returning to TW, I embarked on an out-and-back leg to Leaning Rock.

Hobbling back to TW for the last time, I knew the final downhill stretch would be brutal. Despite the pain, I pushed forward, reminding myself that it would eventually end. Towards the bottom of the climb, I came across the first flat, runnable section of the course, but unfortunately, by that stage, my ankle/shin would have none of it. Just keep moving forward!

Up to this point, I approached the challenges of the trail with a determined mindset, taking each climb, loop, and descent in stride. However, as I reached the notorious Bicycle Wheel climb, I encountered a formidable obstacle that tested my resolve like never before. The ascent was gruelling, and with every step upwards, I knew I would soon face the equally demanding descent. By the time I reached the summit, the intensity of the pain was undeniable. Yet, amidst the struggle, I found a familiar determination to persevere. Each obstacle was just another opportunity to push through the discomfort and keep moving forward, reaffirming the resilience of both body and spirit.

The last leg was a whirlwind of agony and resolve. Tears flowed, prayers were sent to the running gods, and I rallied myself with inner pep talks. I’d traversed a long road, and nothing would deter me now! As the light dimmed, strange shapes and illusions danced before my eyes—I even fancied seeing my Mum on a swing, urging me to keep going.

I paused to capture a photo of the 1km to go sign, a poignant symbol marking the culmination of an 11-year journey nearing its end.

As I neared the final 500 meters, I spotted my beloved wife and daughters—an encounter so surreal that I had to embrace them to confirm their presence. Sharing those last moments with them was an unforgettable experience etched in my memory. With my girls and parents by my side, I triumphantly crossed the finish line, greeted by Terry and overwhelmed by a flood of emotions. I finally realised the magnitude of my accomplishment—I had conquered the Northburn 100.

In the days that followed, the magnitude of my achievement sank in. I couldn’t have done it without the incredible support of my loved ones, especially Tanya, Ruby, Sylvie, Mum and Dad, whose sacrifices and unwavering belief in me carried me through the toughest moments. To my family, friends, coach Jamie, and support team – your encouragement and support meant everything.

Finishing the Northburn 100 wasn’t just about crossing a finish line; it symbolized the strength of perseverance, resilience, and the remarkable connections formed amidst adversity. Reflecting on this accomplishment, I’m grateful for the journey and the exceptional individuals who supported me.

Original Post on Campbells personal blog - Just Running

Coaches notes:

Jamie Hunter

I always get quite a thrill when I first talk through running goals and aspirations with Athletes onboarding with us. It was no exception with Campbell as we discussed his must complete goal of Northburn 100mile for 2024.

We started Campbells campaign towards this event in April 2023, Eleven full months before the start date of the race. It's the second time I have coached Campbell for endurance trail events as we worked together during 2022 towards a few events including the Blackall 50.

Campbell attempted the Northburn 100mile race in 2013 and 2016. Unfortunately his results was not what was hoped for, being a non complete on both occasions. February 2024 was redemption year with a lot at stake. Ultra marathon events like this one take a huge amount of commitment, sacrifice, time and financial cost. Being an overseas event and Campbells third attempt there were some serious pressure's to perform for him as a Coach, programming his training.

We agreed early on if this was going to happen it's an all or nothing approach, completing is the only option!

Eleven months is a long time to train for an event. A lot can happen in those months. A few key points were front of mind for me as we set out planning his training. First and foremost I needed to build his base aerobic endurance. There's only one way to do this and that's lots of easy volume over the months with consistency and progressive volume loading with both the core sport (running) and cardio crosstraining.

Second to this, I needed to make the training enjoyable and not boring. This is always a challenge for long distance running events as we essentially need to spend a lot of time on our feet in conditions similar to what we are training for. In this case for Northburn 100, that meant hours of trails with frequent elevation changes and training times ranging for pre dawn runs, through to middle of the day runs and evening trails under headlamp, most of which would be on his own.

To avoid training fatigue which is common when training for long distance events for a sustained period, I make sure we do two important things. First is getting involved in planning some of the longer training runs in the Athletes environment. This includes assistance in mapping out courses, distances and profiles to find more context to a 5 hour run other than just, '5hrs of trails'.

Secondly, we go on the hunt for smaller events through the training campaign to use as test events for training prep and competitive running, testing nutrition, hydration, gear and pacing.

Campbell was fortunate living in Brisbane, with trails in South East Queensland so varied we were greeted with endless options for different training environments.

In relation to the events, Campbell identified two smaller run events he wanted to target for the year which were perfect platforms for Northburn training.

The Scenic Rim Ultra: a 65km 2,500m elevation gain trail run in the Scenic Rim, west of Brisbane and;

The Wild V5000: a 50mile 5,000m elevation gain trail run in New Zealand on similar trils to Northburn 100.

These events proved perfect for us, testing fitness and an opportunity for race exposure to learn and grow from.

From the outset, Campbell had an unwavering focus on Northburn 100. It almost always found it's way into our regular catchups through conversation over the course of 2023. I knew Campbell was all in on this and willing to do what it takes to conquer the event.

Campbell's training was going really well throughout 2023, we had a couple of physical issues to manage through but nothing too serious that sidelined him for a sustained period.

Campbell did really well at both Scenic Rim Ultra and V5000. However he did exit V5000 with a small amount of doubt, looking ahead to Northburn and questioning some of his abilities and wondering if this was actually a goal that could be conquered. I knew these thoughts needed to be tackle as soon as possible and get him back on track, focusing on the race ahead.

A couple of deload weeks past after V5000 and Campbell started to find his stride again. It was almost like a switch flipped in his mind and I knew right then it was game on for Northburn.

It wasn't long before we started to tick off 11-14hr training weeks consistently, ticking off each session with purpose and intent.

Campbells peak week was four weeks out from the race where he clocked nearly 18 hours of training. I spend a great deal of time planning these weeks as more often than not the athlete is starting the week fatigued and under load making them highly susceptible to sickness and injury.

Campbell executed the week perfectly, focusing on each day and what was required of him in each session. A massive confidence boost looking ahead to Northburn was gained in this week alone.

Northburn 100 peak training week by Run Vault Performance
Northburn 100 peak training week

Overall it's been a very rewarding experience coaching Campbell towards this event. Campbell put his faith in me as a coach to deliver what was needed to perform, more importantly he implanted the seed of self belief in his mind leading up to and during the race to achieve his goal, 11 years in the making.

Run Vault Performance are a team of coaches ready to launch your training and racing to higher levels, get in touch at to discuss your training and racing goals.

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