Paul Charteris (Western States 100 pacer extraordinaire 2006 and now Race Organiser extraordinaire 2009 onwards) asked me a few years ago when I would be venturing way down south to take part in his new event - the Tarawera Ultra Marathon. In 2013 I finally made it via business visits in South Korea, China and Hong Kong for the 5th edition, and what a time to make my first visit to New Zealand North Island. Unprecedented heat and drought had left the countryside brown and the livestock hungry.
With 3 days of business taken care of in Auckland I was free to go out and play. Ex-pat Jan (pronounced 'Yan') Danilo (also now a Race Organiser himself, the resurrected Cape Brett Challenge being his baby) joined me as driver and supporter for the journey south to Rotorua. He had planned to take part but injuries and niggles put paid to that. Thankfully he still wanted to come and soak up the atmosphere of the event, spread the word about his own upcoming event and support me in the process. What a bonus. Thank you, Jan. It was very much appreciated.
We learned a few days before the event that it would follow a modified out-and-back route that would avoid the later forest tracks that were now out of bounds due to high fire risk. It also meant that the later runnable sections were to be replaced by retracing our route along the earlier, unrunnable, gnarly sections through native forest and a few meadows. I wasn't too concerned; I'm used to unrunnable terrain. It just takes longer and it's all the better for taking photos.
I really like Tarawera because it spans 4 days for a really worthwhile, all-encompassing Ultra experience. It’s not your average ‘turn up, run then disperse with no time for socialising’ (equals unfulfilment and anticlimax). This one’s really worthwhile and deserves the full 4 days’ attendance for maximum reward. It was made even more special by the attendance of world-class ultra athletes from New Zealand, Australia and America. Names such as Sage Canaday, Timothy Olson, Vajin Armstrong, Brendan Davies, Mick Donges, Timo Meyer and Ruby Muir would be thrust further into the limelight. Big race sponsors like Vibram (FiveFingers), Injinji (Toesocks), UltrAspire, Buff and Hammer Nutrition enhanced the status and viability of the whole proceedings.
On Thursday 14th was the Tarawera 7k ‘Fun-Run’ from the Redwoods Visitor Centre in Rotorua. It provided a unique chance to mingle and run with world class athletes. The Paparazzi were out in force to capture our images in stills and video as we played among the Redwoods. Lyndon Marceau picked his spot and adjusted his lighting to almost miraculous effect as evidenced by the following, purchased from his good self and reproduced with his express permission:
Never judge a book by its cover. Copyright Lyndon Marceau / marceauphotography.
The hot, intense evening sunshine and dry conditions among the Redwoods reminded me of California. I breathed in deeply to sample the scents of the forestry to see it it reminded me of California and I got stale farts, rotten eggs and stink bombs. Our flagged running route took us to the overlook over the steaming, festering volcanic pools of Rotorua and the source of the stench. After taking in the views and the vapours we continued along the marked loop back to the Visitor Centre feeling refreshed and ready for dinner.
After the fun run among the redwoods and some fast(er) runners.
Friday 15th was seminar and Q & A day with the top runners at the Holiday Inn Rotorua, followed by registration, packet pick-up, purchases of the latest kit from the sponsoring companies and more conversation with friendly people of like mind. We finished the day with another visit to the Redwoods Visitor Centre to try to work out where the race would set off the following morning. It involved another bit of a run. The vapours gave me quite an appetite once again so we made haste to Lonestar Rotorua for the second time for our last supper before The Big Day.
Friday evening back among the redwoods with Jan and Grant.
On Saturday 16th in pre-dawn darkness, hundreds of runners gathered at the Redwoods Visitor Centre. There were relay, 60k, 85k and 100k runners. Relay runners had blue numbers and ultra runners had orange, but it was not clear which ultra they would be running. We waited in the clouds of disturbed trail dust for the 06:30 start command from Paul, and then we were off, shuffling our way up the incline towards the steps that climbed to the left turn towards the ridge. We caught glimpses of the lights of Rotorua between the trees below to our left as the first signs of dawn began to appear. I eased into the groove of the easy early trail running as daylight appeared, imagining myself running Western States again. Checkpoint 1 at Tikitapu (Blue Lake, 8.6 miles) soon arrived – time for a quick refill then off, left turn and descend to the sound of enthusiastic cheering in search of CP2.
I had an ambitious yet realistic 13-hour schedule etched on my brain. I’d done The Fellsman in around 17 hours over mostly unrunnable terrain with gratuitous climbs and descents, so this undulating runnable trail event over a similar distance should be much faster than that, or so I thought in my naïvety. Ambitious would prove to be the word of the day and almost the next.
Checkpoint 2 (Lake Okareka, 12.2 miles) came even quicker. The sun was up, the heat was on and I was already beginning to suffer. 2hrs 10mins had elapsed. Jan met me here to tell me that I was 18 minutes up on the 13 hour schedule. Already sensing the first signs of slowdown I couldn't get excited by that factoid. I did my best to take care of fuelling and hydration, already feeling that the 2 weeks of business travel in the lead-up had done me no favours and left my fitness somewhat lacking.
[I notice time after time how my fitness plummets with business travel or any other rest, while more racing makes more speed. Here are some examples over the years:
- Getting a Personal Worst at Osmotherley Phoenix after 2 weeks’ restful business travel, but getting a Personal Best a week after getting my all-time 100 PB at Western States;
- Near-PB at 5k within 4 days of completing Western States 100;
- One of my best Long Tour of Bradwell performances after Lakeland 100;
- One of my best Marlborough Downs Challenge performances a week after The Fellsman;
- Getting faster and fitter over 5 consecutive weekends of ultra marathons (including a Hundred) during a Runfurther Grand Slam year;
- Feeling strong and super fit and ready to take on the world after 7 consecutive days of ultra marathons (350km Swiss Jura Marathon).
Rest rapidly robs speed and ruins fitness, so keep running.]
From CP2 was (almost) the only stretch of road uphill to Checkpoint 3 (Millar Road, 13.9 miles). It was only 1.7 miles from the previous checkpoint yet I was already desperate for the refreshments on offer. This was looking ominous. I already seemed to be in survival mode and living hand-to-mouth with my sustenance. I had plenty of my own food, water in one hand-held bottle and Coke in the other, yet somehow I didn't seem to be doing a very good job of looking after myself. We'd been spoiled so far by the frequency of the aid stations, but from now on the aid gaps lengthened dramatically. It would be 15 miles to the next one. Self sufficiency would be called upon with the hot sunshine doing its best to desiccate our suffering bodies.
It didn't turn out quite as bad as that. The sun acquired some cloud cover and, more importantly, we entered native forestry that kept us well sheltered and enthralled with its sights, sounds and smells. Tree ferns large and small took pride of place in the sights department. For the sounds I was captivated by the birdsong from a particular type of bird. It was a proper tune in a proper musical key that appealed to my ear and stirred the emotions. It was repeated many times to intensify the effect. Different birds (of the same species) sang different songs, always in a proper key and repeated identically each time. Smells, from what I can gather, should have been a lot danker (and familiar to my nostrils) than they were due to the exceptional dryness. Scents were the least memorable as a result.
The trail descended into and climbed out of a ravine that was signed as a river crossing, yet there was not a drop of water in it. As the miles ticked by there was a lot of climb and descent with some hands-and-feet scrambling over rock outcrops. As I neared the next checkpoint the first return runners appeared, wearing ultra runner numbers. I was expecting the first one to be Sage Canaday and if not Sage, Timothy Olson, but these were neither Sage nor Tim. I was perplexed and concerned for the well-being of the expected leaders. I found out later that these first returnees were running one of the shorter distances and they had an earlier turnaround.
I arrived at Checkpoint 4 (Okataina Lodge, 23.1 miles) with almost 5 hours elapsed to rapturous applause, personalised announcement over the PA and a party atmosphere. “This is just like Western States”, I thought to myself. I felt uplifted. I asked if anyone knew where Sage was. “Arrival imminent and definitely in the lead” came the reply. I made straight for the refreshment tables for Coke infusion and food, hoping he didn't whiz through while my back was turned. Jan had done the business and got me a nice sandwich, half of which went straight down, the other half saved for later. I was now 18 minutes down on the 13 hour schedule. 36 minutes had been lost over the last 11 miles, but so what? I could only go as fast as my body allowed. Schedules be damned. I don't normally work to schedules anyway. How can you when every event is a venture into the unknown? I reverted to my normal mentality of just getting on with it as best I could. 'What will be will be'. From now on I would use 'the schedule' as a form of entertainment; just how far adrift can I get with my best physical efforts? We would see.
With a stomach-full of sandwich and Coke and two refilled drink bottles, I bade Jan farewell for the long 30-mile loop out to the turnaround and back to Okataina, where I would see him again for another sandwich surprise. The first 23 miles had taken me 5 hours. We had no inkling that it would be nearly another 8 hours before we would meet again.
I kept my eyes peeled for Sage's appearance but advanced warning of returnees was often impossible due to the twisting turning footpath and thick vegetation. The running through the forest was now very technical up, down, in and out, much of it on single track through rocks and roots where one wrong foot move would have you over the edge. Often you could only see a few metres to the next turn or mini 'summit'. At times there was one place only where you could place your foot, typically between a rock, a couple of roots and a precipice on one very well trodden patch of dirt. Every time returning runners appeared I stopped and leaned to the side to let them pass. Running was out of the question for me. I appreciated the valid excuses to walk.
It was well over an hour – in fact not that long before I reached the next aid station – when our first 100k runner finally appeared. Warnings of his imminent arrival at Okataina had perhaps been a bit exaggerated in the excitement of the day. Sage was characteristically shirtless, head down and grinding it out in complete concentration. He never removed his gaze from the ground as he replied to my words of encouragement. It was quite understandable given the technicality of the trail, but I did wonder if he was suffering a bit as well.
1st Sage Canaday.
12 minutes after Sage, Tim, also characteristically shirtless, loomed into view too late for a head-on shot so we only get to see him run away past Paul C back towards the finish. (His arrival had been preceded by the video camera crew and Race Director Paul Charteris moving back along the trail to intercept and capture those images.)
Paul stands aside for 2nd Timothy Olson.
9 minutes after Tim, number three Vajin Armstrong was running in a group and enjoying good conversation. His ever-present broad smile confirmed that he was still enjoying life. He seemed to be running comfortably, well within himself.
3rd Vajin Armstrong.
Checkpoint 5 (Humphries Bay, 29.6 miles) arrived. I was feeling OK if a little depleted in a normal, ultra-running sort of way. It was nothing that a bit more food, Coke and electrolyte couldn't sort out. As I rested awhile I noticed another runner's patriotically taped calves. I thought they matched my shorts rather well.
The checkpoint hospitality was soon left behind as I departed for the next one. Returning runners were still passing at regular intervals. The terrain eased a little to undulating, with mossy forest floors that I was sure should have been a lot more damp than they were.
Checkpoint 6 (Tarawera Outlet, 34.7 miles) appeared after nearly 8 hours elapsed. I was now 50 minutes behind the 13 hour schedule. Ho-hum. Most important was that I was holding it together and going as fast as I was able while giving myself a chance of finishing. Just as important was that I was enjoying another new ultra marathon experience. Mr Patriotic Calves was at this aid station too. We seemed to be shadowing each other.
From CP6 to the furthest point at the turnaround was just 3.3 miles. Easy, but we had a big staircase to negotiate first, followed by the Tarawera falls to gawp at in wonderment.
The turnaround at Tarawera Falls (37.8 miles) provided a surprise Checkpoint 7 with refreshments. I was greeted by a leg of such colour I couldn't take my eyes off it. Its owner had made it her storage and dispensing facility for the elasticated bands that we would wear to prove that we'd been there. She had a bright pink one at the ready, just for me. I obediently put it around my arm with scarcely a murmur of dissent.
Madame leg prescribes a bright pink one for yours truly.
On the return from the turnaround I finally made the acquaintance of Mr Calf Tape, around the vicinity of the long wooden staircase if I recall correctly. Fellow Brit Paulo Osorio was doing his first Ultra with virtually no training beforehand. He was struggling along as a result, but he was keeping a steady pace that was perfectly matched to mine, since we'd been shadowing each other for miles. We agreed that we would carry on together to the end for moral support and encouragement. I was delighted to have an official running companion from now on. It doesn't often happen; it's usually 'every man for himself' in these events. However I did think to myself: if he can achieve that pace with no training, what is he capable of with some proper training under his belt? I sensed that I was in the presence of greatness.
Paulo descends the staircase.
Checkpoint 8 (Tarawera Outlet return, 41.3 miles) came after just over 9.5 hours elapsed, now 1hr 10mins behind the 13hr schedule. I continued to enjoy comparing reality with the hypothetical schedule that had proven itself to be based on fictitious assumptions. The Tarawera Ultra Marathon was proving itself to me MUCH tougher than I had imagined. It was no easy trail run, that's for sure.
After another essential refuel and hydration and more banter with the aid station staff, we were on our way once again. The outward runners had reduced to a trickle and had all but ceased now. I figured that we were not that far from the back of the field.
Checkpoint 9 (Humphries Bay return, 46.4 miles) came and went, with another brilliant welcome from the volunteers and excellent refuelling fodder. Paulo and I talked about anything that came to mind to help pass the time and take our minds off our individual suffering. He had one of those newfangled GPS gizmos that I would never touch with a bargepole. It beeped every km and Paulo converted the elapsed distance to a year (e.g. 75km = 1975) and we had to recall everything we could think of from that year. What a good game. Nice one Paulo. It provided us a few hours' entertainment.
The calves at Humphries Bay.
As the next checkpoint drew closer we came across some roving marshals on their mountain bikes and supporters running back down the trail in search of their runner. We asked what was happening. The cut-off time at CP10 had been brought forward by an hour to 19:45, we found out later because runners were taking much longer than expected to cover the final leg to the finish on the modified, tougher course. I felt sorry for those who would suddenly have an unexpected cut-off sprung upon them. I was not too worried about Paulo and myself; we just had enough spare time in hand, but it didn't stop me running that little bit harder into the checkpoint.
Checkpoint 10 (Okataina Lodge return, 52.9 miles) arrived to Western States-style fanfare once again after (wait for it) 12hrs 46mins elapsed. Jan asked where on earth I'd been all this time. Slogging my guts out to within an inch of my life, came the reply; or words to that effect. I was racked with mirth at now being exactly 2 hours behind the 13 hour schedule. Not to worry though. Jan had a nice sandwich and lashings of Coke for me to make it all better. Thanks Jan.
Jan welcomes me back to Okataina.
Darkness was not far away now so we got our head torches out in readiness. The MC lady with the mic was good enough to get mine out of my backpack for me, to save me having to take it off and do it myself. Such service; I didn't want to leave, but we did, at 13 hours elapsed and 15 minutes before the revised cut-off. Now we had the long, tough slog into darkness with big climbs and descents that I knew would take a long time plus extra beyond our most pessimistic predictions. It became a survival plod with muttering and chuntering about the distance being more than advertised, and when is that pesky aid station going to turn up? It's half an hour overdue. Etc. We were probably 'running' slowly.
It wasn't all death-march misery though (did I just say that?). We got to hear many sounds of the night from near and far. We got to see many pairs of eyes of different colours reflecting our torch light back at us. The eyes did not move. The tameness of the local wildlife was unbelievable. We got to mix it on the trail with a hedgehog, several possums and several wallabies, none of which were in any great hurry to move out of our way. We never did see the depositors of the large piles of dung on the trail, though. (Possums' eyes reflect bright orange.)
The re-crossing of the dry river valley in the dark was interesting. The one place for resting a hand (wooden post) now had a glow stick sitting on it. We had to find alternative means of support on the steep descent to avoid sending it tumbling to the bottom.
Finally yet suddenly in the end, its presence pre-announced by lines of glow sticks, checkpoint 11 (Millar Road return, 62.1 miles) appeared where the trail climbed to join the road. Nearly home now, but not before another brief sit-down and Coke infusion with the aid station volunteers ordering us to get going. Oh alright then. 1.7 miles downhill to the finish, except that it wasn't.
Paulo and I set off running until it levelled out then began to climb a little. I was in the all too familiar ultra shuffle survival mode and desperate to walk, but I couldn't allow it, not now. Pride forced us both to continue running the final climb and left turn onto the grass. Paul Charteris shouted out a welcome announcement over the PA and Jan waited at the finishing line to welcome us home. We crossed the line in 16:23:27 with the time approaching 11pm, delighted to be done at last. I was also delighted to have had such a good companion in Paulo for the return leg.
All done and dusted (on our legs). The one sock is to keep my almost detached toenail in place.
The total distance was 63.8 miles (102.1km). I was shocked that it had taken me so long and how unexpectedly tough it had been. Mid-pack runners were taking at least 2 hours longer to finish than they would on the normal course. That aside, I suspect most of my suffering was down to my inability to fuel and hydrate myself adequately.
Sage Canaday went on to win in 8:53:34, Timothy Olson second in 8:56:47 and Vajin Armstrong third in 9:39:49. What performances, and what along day (for some of us at least).
On Sunday 17th the long weekend of Ultra pleasure continued into its 4th day with prizes, presentations and special 5th anniversary cake back at the Holiday Inn Rotorua. I may have felt a little star struck when I chatted with Sage (a pleasanter bloke you couldn't wish to meet).
A new race that was the best edition so far, a new country, new flora and fauna, excellent support from Jan Danilo; it's all left me with amazing memories. I hope the best of the photos I took communicate some of the magic.
Hot off the press – a short, very professional event video has just been uploaded to YouTube.