After our first few weeks back in New Zealand, we were on the road again to Rotorua where we were to run the 60km distance in the Tarawera Ultramarathon. The Tarawera Ultra has gained legendary status in New Zealand, as well as internationally as part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour series. This means that exceptional athletes from all over the world toe the line with everyone else who is signed up. The event offers three distances of 60, 85 and 100km and a relay option for the 85km race.
We had no expectations on this event apart from “let’s get to the finish line somehow” – but we also knew that with our average pace we should be able to complete the event without much drama. Both of us having done less than ideal training prior to the event, we were in no way expecting to do any “fast” times.
Chan’s note: Incidentally I had signed up for the 60k in 2012 and had to pull out for personal reasons. Then I went from the initial I’ll-never-do-an-Ultra and about-to-be-part-of-a-relay-team in 2014 to somehow convince Orsi that we should give it a go together this year.
The Great Geyser Rogaine
We drove up north to Rotorua from Wellington on Thursday, a couple of days before the main event to join in the fun that the organisers Tim and Paul had put together for the Thursday afternoon. The Great Geyser Rogaine was for us one of the many highlights during that weekend. The start was at the world famous Te Puia thermal park, and the event was open to anyone who happened to be in Rotorua on the day, with Darren Ashmore of Orienteering BoP having created a fun and newbie-friendly course for the 60-minute rogaine. We really enjoyed going head to head against some of the best including two local NZ orienteering champs and a few overseas visitors, such as the Swede Jonas Buud (who eventually won the mens’s 100km event), Jason Schlarb and the ever so popular Mike Wardian from the USA. Of course, the locals, Tim, Paul and super coach and Sqaudrun “General” Kerry Suter were also part of the teams to beat!
When it comes to orienteering I am a bit hopeless, while Orsi, having to assume the role of navigator, always has the patience to reel me in when I start running away like a headless chicken chasing after other people. After an initial rush and getting nowhere, Orsi expertly said to me “you stop running and read me the clues…”, and from then on our navigational prowess improved significantly, which resulted in us getting to 20 controls out of about 30! However we were about 2mins late getting back, and – quite obviously – never really threatened to take the win.
Welcoming Ceremony & Event Expo
Early morning on Friday we headed to Te Puia again to attend the traditional ceremony welcoming all athletes, family and friends to Rotorua. Pōwhiri is the name of the a Māori welcoming ritual performed when two groups are meeting for the first time. We were led to the entrance of the Rotowhio Marae and were introduced to this spine-tingling experience. The initial part of the ritual included the spectacular wero (challenge), when a group of toa (warrior) approached our group to challenge the – honorary – male chief, and confirm our peaceful intent to visit. Local kiwi runner Vajin Armstrong was appointed to play the role of the chief and lead the runners. As it was drizzling, we were all asked to come into the marae itself, where the Mayor of Rotorua and other dignitaries, along with Paul and Tim, welcomed everyone.
After the welcoming ceremony we met up with Wellington runners Stu and Andrew from the Wellington Running Meetup group and did an easy jog on part of the course around Lake Tikitapu (Blue Lake), where we would be running the next day. By the time we had started running some dark clouds were gathering and it became apparent that it would soon start raining, and it did. More rain was announced at the race briefing we attended at the Event Expo. The forecast was heavy rain overnight, which would clear to drizzle by the morning of the race start. Not what we wanted to hear, but also nothing we could do about it. The organising team reiterated that all athletes had to carry a seam-sealed waterproof jacket for the entire event. This meant that we could put to good use Orsi’s purple Marmot jacket and my newly acquired blue Outdoor Research rain shield.
At the Race Expo, we caught up with a few other runners we knew, among whom was Mal Law (the guy who ran 50 mountain marathons in 50 days), who was there to promote the movie made of his adventure (more on this later), as well as take part in the event.
We gathered our registration packs and headed back to our accommodation to prepare our drop bags.
Since we did not have anyone on the course to support us, we prepared our drop bags with replacement drink bottles filled with magical Tailwind, some muesli bars, nuts and a change of much needed dry clothes. As we were heading back to the Expo by car to hand in the drop bags, we saw a runner walking other the rain drop bags in hand. Nice-natured runners as we are, we stopped and offered to give him a lift. It turned out that our new friend, Michael, had just flown in from Peru to run the 100km race, and was heading back straight after (so much for crazy ultra runners)!!! As he did not know where the start was and had no transport, we offered to pick him up the next day from his backpackers at 5am.
We went to bed early after a good dinner Orsi made of pasta and chicken, washed down with some ginger beer. In reality I did not get much sleep. I listened to the endless rain falling incessantly during the night, and hoped that it would clear by race start.
The Event Day
A very early morning start for both of us with our regular routine breakfast of fruit, honey and muesli, mixed with kefir yoghurt and, of course, the important coffee. Then we were off to pick up our new friend Michael, who, to his credit, was exactly where he said he would be on time. We drove to the Red Woods start and parked our car on a side road near the Long Mile Road, unsure when we would see it again. Then we hastily put on our seam-sealed rain jackets, as it was still raining ever so slightly. We walked towards the start line surrounded by other runners, head lamps on, their family and supporters in tow. Some were talking loudly in excitement, others silent in pensive thought but eager to get going.
Rain was falling in drizzle, nevertheless, even at those early hours of the morning, it was getting warm, so we eventually took off our jackets and stuffed them in the running packs just before start. Then it was countdown-time and slowly but surely everyone started moving forward and, as we passed under the start canopy, we started our personal GPS watches. The first 4-5 kilometres were slow and in some places reduced to walking due to other runners slowing down in front of us. This was not ideal, but we could not do much about it, so we kept on going jogging/walking/jogging until we saw any opportunity to pass wherever it was safe. For the first 30-40 minutes we were behind on pace considerably but as the day went on it did not really end up making much difference.
We came past the first few climbs and onto a clearing, and suddenly it was full daylight as we dropped off our head lamps in the bins provided with race marshals. From this point on we got into a good rhythm and went into the first single trails at a steady pace. Eventually we came out at Blue lake where we did a pit stop (or Orsi did and I waited), then after another few kms we hit the first aid station at Tikitapu. We refuelled from our first drop bags and went straight into the tricky-nasty-rooty part or Tennent’s Track connecting to Millar Road. I had a couple of missed steps and fell or rather slipped a few times which put me a bit off rhythm. We had done about 20kms by this time, still within the splits that would allow us to finish as expected.
From Millar Road to Okataina things changed dramatically for me. My left knee started locking up and it was getting from slight discomfort to pain. The next thing was the ITBs that became painful with each step and slip sideways on the mud.
All the rain and the mud made it much harder to keep steady steps and our progress dwindled to a painful shuffle for me. Coming down to Okataina I knew that I was in for a long day. I felt quite deflated especially since Orsi was with me and I knew I was slowing her down. And she was not prepared to leave me and was quite adamant that she would stick with me and get me to the finish line no matter what. We got passed by quite a few people between Okataina Lodge aid station and Humphries Bay. And our loosely estimated target time was slipping away fast. Now it was just about surviving the 60kms.
I jogged/shuffled my way through gritted teeth and made it rather painfully to Tarawera Outlet. It came as a relief that we had only another 6kms or so to go, plus and one of the awesome-cheerful guys manning the aid station said to me with a bright smile: “Mate you’ve made it this far, now comes the most beautiful part of the course. You’ll hear the waterfalls and the river all along!” This lifted me up considerably. Behold the power of human kindness, encouraging words and a smile!
Orsi was at the end of her patience I could see. She had been on her feet almost all day, and, even though pain-free, she was tired and so was I. She turned to me and said: “I am going to run this bit, but I’ll wait for you to come to cross the finish line”. We both set off, me very slowly and cautiously, and Orsi at a good pace. Miraculously though I was able to get into a steady rhythm and keep up with her. And, as we were told at the aid station, that bit of the trail was superb! I felt like I was flying, although the crude reality reflected by my Garmin, I was doing no more than 6:30-7min kms according to the splits. Still, it sure felt better than the shuffle I had before!
And finally, we crossed the finish line! In an unglamorous time of 9hrs 25mins, but at least we finished with a high note.
After we got our medals from race director Tim, we headed to the river to clean up all the mud caked on our legs. Then hobbled another 2-3km to the car park. Luckily we soon managed to hitch a ride to the 85km and 100km finish line at Kawerau with an Irish couple – she had also finished the 60km event, her first ultra. By the time we got to Kawerau, it was pouring with rain, so as much as we wanted to linger and watch our friends arrive, we decided to make only a quick stop at a hot chips truck, get some coffee, and then head back to Rotorua.
Prize Giving and Movie Premier
The morning of next day we arranged to meet a few friends at the wonderful Abracadabra café in Rotorua, which offered a runners’ breakfast special for the participants of the Ultra. All smiling, each of us told and retold our race stories, while some friend who had been manning an aid station also described the highlights of their long day.
After breakfast we headed to the Event Expo for the grand prize giving, where all the weary runners were gathering. You could see the toll that the race had taken on some of them as they walked very gingerly to settle down on to their seats.
Irunfar.com has all the info on what happened at the front of the field. In summary Swede Jonas Buud took the men’s honours in the 100km and Wellington runner Fiona Hayvice was the winner of the 100km women’s field.
After the prize giving we attended the world premier of Fifty the Movie, which tells Malcolm Law’s story of running 50 mountain marathons up to 50 peaks in 50 days to raise funds for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. You can watch the trailer on Vimeo or download the digital version of the movie here.
All in all it was a great weekend of running. We had a lot of fun (and pain) and some of our local Wellington runner friends did great on the day. Some like us completed an ultra distance for the first time and some like Emma completed yet another ultra successfully!
Have you done any ultramarathons, or are you planning to do one in the future?