The Tarawera Ultra Marathon took place on February 7th, during New Zealand’s Waitangi Day long weekend starting in the town of Rotorua, New Zealand’s adventure capital, and ending in the sawmill town of Kawerau. The race weekend began with an authentic cultural experience at the Te Puia Centre where Maori cultural dancers performed a traditional powhiri welcome ceremony, which included the iconic haka. The start of the weekend was especially moving as it coincided with the Waitangi Day celebrations. We were also treated to the magnificent sight of the world famous Pohutu Geyser. Essentially a perfect start to what was to be an absolute Eat.Run.See highlight.
Upon reflecting on this weekend one word comes to mind more than any other. It’s not very eloquent, and it’s not very informative, but somehow it captures things rather well. And that word is a straightforward “Wow!”
A number of things came together to make our Tarawera experience so memorable. And the race itself, perhaps, isn’t even the most important element in all of that.
But since this is going to be essentially a race report I will only just mention the non-race aspects that turned this event into one of lasting significance for us both.
As part of our North Island exploration we used couchsurfing.com to secure accommodation for one night in Wellington. Amazingly, it turned out that the wonderful couple, Scott and Adrienne, whom we connected with, were also running the Tarawera Ultra 100KM! We had a great evening staying with them in their lovely home in Wellington, where they shared with us their experience and a number of insider tips gleaned from their previous Tarawera runs. But it doesn’t stop there. Scott and Adrienne also invited us to stay with them in the spare room of the holiday home that they had already rented for race weekend. Suddenly our big race weekend, which we’d been planning for many months, turned into an epic weekend spent with new friends, that happened to include a race. Thanks again to Scott and Adrienne (who both ran amazing 100KM races) for their amazing Kiwi generosity and hospitality!
OK, this is supposed to be a race report, right? Let’s start at the beginning. Of course, I’m not quite sure where the beginning of any of these races truly is. Is it when you decide to enter, and start vaguely training for a long run many months in the future, is it the night before the race when you fail miserably at trying to get a good night’s sleep, or is it when the starting signal goes off?
Let’s just say that we were nervously confident – even though our training during the month we spent in India (two months before the race) was rather lackluster due to logistical troubles (it turns out it’s not that easy to run in India…), our training in New Zealand during the month prior to Tarawera went really well. Additionally we felt buoyed by a great 60KM training run on the famous and beautiful Kepler Track near gorgeous Te Anau on the South Island.
Race morning dawned (well that’s just an expression, since we got up at 4am, well before any hint of “dawn”) and we made our way to the start at the entrance to the magnificent Redwoods area in Rotorua. One of the huge advantages of staying with Scott and Adrienne during race weekend was the help we got from their support crew, Adrienne’s sister, Danielle. Danielle drove the four of us to the start area and we enjoyed one of our most relaxing and stress free race starts in a long while!
While waiting for the big run to get underway we were treated to another spectacular, goose-bump inducing haka performance by the Te Puia performers. It set the scene for an awesome day filled with emotion, grit and perseverance.
It was still dark when the race started, and the train of headlamps through the majestic Redwood forest looked an equal mixture of eerie and spectacular.
Bev and I quickly settled into an easy, comfortable rhythm and before we knew it we felt relaxed and confident. Although at Comrades (89km on the road) we’d come close, neither of us had run 100km before and we decided to take it really easy to begin with and just see what happened.
The first few kilometers passed uneventfully enough, listening to the nervous and excited chatter of those around us, and quietly hoping that we’d last all the way to the finish.
For me, this confidence started fading fairly soon afterwards. By the time we’d reached the Millar Road aid station at around the 20km mark my quads started feeling unreasonably fatigued, and with another 80km to go, it didn’t exactly fill me with joy. Before the run Bev and I agreed that for a longish day, as this one was expected to be, we would try to eat actual solid food from early on at the aid stations. The first thing I saw on offer at the aid station was a lily-white bread sandwich with about a half inch of Marmite – not exactly the kind of thing we usually eat. Nevertheless, I didn’t feel all that great and figured it looked appetizing enough, and so I went for it. I also wolfed down two more sandwiches with heaps of boysenberry jam.
We spent about 10 minutes at the aid station eating, and filling our water bottles, before we set off again, and I was amazed at how strong I felt – significantly better than when we arrived. (From now on, I will be eating lots of Marmite on long runs!). The 17km to the next aid station at Okataina Lodge felt really easy and we were running well and utterly enjoying the great spirit and camaraderie amongst the runners on the trail.
Upon arriving at the aid station I immediately got down to eating more Marmite and jam sandwiches, gulped down a few glasses of Heed, and filled up water bottles before tackling the next 10km section to Humphries Bay.
This next section of the run included what would become another major highlight of our New Zealand adventure as a fellow runner tucked in behind me and Bev and followed along as we made our way along a gorgeous and runnable section of the course. The runner, who is a wonderful Kiwi lady, called Tui, chatted away and provided non-stop commentary, entertaining me and Bev (I didn’t hear that much of her chatter though, since I had my music on and was totally in the zone, pushing as hard as I thought was prudent with another 60+ kilometers to go (yes, it is mentally tough to think of having 60km to go after already having run 40km!). But more important than Tui’s commentary, was the fact that she and Bev connected on a personal level and before we knew it Tui had invited us to stay with her and her family for a few days. We took her up on her offer a few days later and had a great time getting to know her husband and their two wonderful kids.
From Okataina (37km) to Tarawera Falls (60km) is advertised as the toughest section of the course, and we’d have to wholeheartedly agree. This 23km section took us over 4 hours, including some time spent in the two aid stations along the way. It’s all single-track with a some ups and downs thrown in.
It’s probably the most beautiful section too though, which is a good thing, since this helped keep us going. Getting to the 60km mark was also a major boost, since we knew that the last 40km were relatively easy running, mostly on forest service roads. Because of this we had our road shoes waiting for us in our drop bags at the Tarawera Falls aid station, and we were looking forward to throwing on slightly lighter and more comfortable shoes. Unfortunately the Tarawera Falls aid station also represented the one negative we experienced on the day. We had originally signed up for the 60km race, but changed our distance to the 100km the day before during registration, following the posted procedure to do so. We had placed our drop bags in the correct trailer for the 60km aid station for 100km runners. However, upon reaching the 60km aid station (which also serves as the 60km finish) we couldn’t locate our drop bags in the 100km race area, and were finally told to check the 60km finish bag location, which was about 500 meters away from the 100km drop bag location! After changing shoes and restocking our fuel we asked if volunteers could take our bags the 500 meters back to the 100km drop bag location (to ensure they were delivered to the finish area), and we were met with an indifferent shrug, indicating that it would be too much trouble for them to do that and we would have to do it ourselves. It is amazing how much an extra kilometer hurts when you have to complete 100 of them! This little annoyance was soon forgotten as we got on with the task of tackling the last 40km.
The final 40km were advertised as easy, non technical forestry roads with little elevation gain, and a few easy gradual downhills, and with our feet now in lighter, more cushy environs in our road shoes we felt quite buoyed. For me, this section was the most emotional. Soon we started feeling like we were going to make it, and upon reaching the Titoki aid station with only 30km to go it struck me as rather amazing how one can see 30km as just a short hop to the finish.
On long endurance events one feels a range of emotions which typically include nervousness, excitement, loneliness, friendship, self loathing, and love. This day did not disappoint, I felt all of these in spades. I always go back to the loss of our Archer, and more recently, it also includes the loss of my one of a kind mom who passed away late in 2013. My dad texted me good luck wishes the day before which included encouraging and proud messages from my brothers as well. Thinking about my family and feeling their support always gives me strength and a sense of belonging which can sometimes be lost out there in the late hours of a long run.
One of the aspects I like most of long runs is how it forces you to look deep inside, to see what’s there and to found out if, whatever it is, is strong enough to get you to the finish line. Bev and I have an advantage here; we help each other, we encourage each other, we remind each other to eat and drink, or to slow down or pick it up. It also adds a bit to my occasional self loathing though, when I sometimes irrationally blame myself for putting her through the tribulations of a 16 hour long run, as if it’s somehow my fault that she decided to run a 100km trail race.
Running the final 15km in the dark with only our headlamps illuminating a cone of the darkness ahead, and only our footsteps and breathing piercing the silence, added meaningfully to the surreality of closing in on the finish of a 100km long run through some of the magnificent forests of New Zealand.
Finding the last turn towards to finish arch in Firmin field, in the town of Kawerau was almost magical. Seeing the finish line, hearing our names being called out as we crossed that line was amazing. But what was truly special, was the fact that our new friends Scott and Adrienne were there waiting for us, with hugs ready, after completing their own 100km runs much earlier than we did.
For us, Tarawera Ultra Marathon 2015 will always be about friendship, perseverance, and achievement, but mostly about friendship, thanks to especially Scott, Adrienne, and Tui, but also thanks to the organizers and the rest of the participants who created a real feeling of family out there on a tough, but utterly well lived day!