In early 2018 Celia and I traveled home to New Zealand for a vacation which included getting married and running the Tarawera Ultra-marathon 102km. We got married on Monday the 5th of February, 5 days before the race. It was a perfect day, getting married overlooking the Hauraki Gulf with all our family and friends. The weather wasn’t great most of the day but magically cleared as Celia arrived at the ceremony and we were treated to a beautiful afternoon and evening. Great food, music and company made for an amazing occasion.
On the following Saturday, only 5 days after the wedding, we would be toeing the line in Kawerau to run back to Rotorua. We traveled down to Rotorua on Wednesday. We completed our final course scouting session running from Redwoods to the finish. A few weeks earlier we had traveled down to Rotorua and checked out a few sections including; Okataina Lodge to Miller Road, Blue Lake Loop and Tank to Redwoods. In total we scouted about 30% of the course. For the scouting we were targeting the later parts of the course when you want to be familiar with how far to go as you get tired. We also used our early arrival in Rotorua to check out some of the race week activities. Tarawera is an awesome event and it’s not all about race day. On Thursday evening we went to the race briefing. The briefing covered the weather forecast, course conditions and the usual things you would expect. Of particular interest was the medical briefing where the lead doctor for the event spoke about the medical effects of running an ultra-marathon and certain ways to help take care of yourself during and after the event.
The next day started with a Powhiri welcome at Te Puia. A Powhiri is a traditional Maori greeting, in this case welcoming the runners onto the Maori land and wishing them the best for the race. After the Powhiri we had a chance to have a look around Te Puia where there are Maori buildings, carvings, and geothermal activity. Even if you are not running I would recommend having a look around Te Puia any time you are in Rotorua.
In the afternoon we went back to the expo to listen to the Elite Q&A. There were 5 elite women and 5 elite men on the panel. Unfortunately a lot of time was spent talking about what the elites have done, where as I think it would have been more beneficial to get more time for the audience to ask questions. Also questions were often asked to each panel member again taking time. It was interesting to hear that some of the elites would be wearing road shoes even given the muddy forecast. I guess a lot of the race is still on gravel or smoother surfaces where the road shoes would excel, maybe I should run in road shoes on the trails more often to see what it is like. That evening we finalized our gear and produced our crew document. The crew document sets expectations, lists expected arrivals times, how to get to the aid stations, gear/food we would want at each aid station etc. If you are having crew I’d recommend writing something like this up to get everyone on the same page.
The morning of the race we got up at about 04:15 and had our normal breakfast of oats and fruit before start the 40 minute drive from Rotorua to Kawerau. It had been raining steadily all week and the forecast for race day was more of the same. We arrived at Kawerau and got all our race gear on before putting a raincoat over the top to stay warm until the start time. With these long ultras I don’t bother warming much, preferring to warm up during the start of the race to keep me from shooting off. I ate a banana, went to the bathroom and received good luck wishes from Mum, Dad and Ali. Soon enough we lined up for the start and off we went.
The race starts for about 3 kilometers through park land and a golf course. There is no track and you just follow flags along the way. I could see the pack in front with the front runners going pretty quick and stretching out the pack early on. At 2.5 kilometers you head into the bush on native single track. I had no one too close to me and was just trying to set my own pace and run my own race for the first 50km or so. Underfoot the trail was in good condition and it was quite a nice start as it meandered through the forest beside the river. About half way along this section some guy went flying past me like he was on a mission to get to the front, I’m guessing he missed the start for some reason. At kilometer 6 you come out onto gravel forest road which is the terrain for most of the next 40km. Kilometer 10 was the first aid station and was also crewed. It was great to see Ali there, as she quickly snapped a photo and helped me fill my water bottles. Just before the aid station a pack of runners caught up with me. I was running off my heart rate trying to keep it between 150-155bpm. It was surprising that as this pack caught I just fell in step and started moving a bit faster without my heart rate increasing too much. My friend Tom was running the first leg of the 87km relay and went flying past me a bit after the aid station. By the second aid station I still had enough water to keep going without stopping so rolled through.
The next aid station would be at kilometer 35. Just before this we dropped off the forest road to follow a track down a gully. Looking back the track was a bit muddy but it wasn’t clay and the downhill allowed you to kind of roll through any sticky parts. It certainly wasn’t as bad as what was to come. At the aid station I filled up on water and grabbed some banana. This was the end of the forest road for a while and I was looking forward to hitting some proper single track. First up was the Northern Tarawera track which goes past Tarawera falls. With all the rain during the week the falls were roaring! It was also a nice hark back to my first 100k race at Gorge Waterfalls, providing a mental reminder that you can get through the race. The track continues up the river providing a nice change of scenery from the pine forest which dominated the early parts of the race. Underfoot the track was perfect. It was compacted enough that the rain hadn’t churned it up and was technical enough that you could still move well but wasn’t boring. The track leads up to the Tarawera outlet which is the fourth aid station on the course, at kilometer 40. This aid station had a weird setup in that you had to do a little out and back across a bridge to get to it, however crew were at the junction with the bridge so having crew was a big advantage. I changed to an icebreaker t-shirt here to get a little more warmth and put on a fresh buff. At first the track followed the lake giving nice lake views. After 2km it turned inland a bit which is when things started to get pretty muddy. At this point most of the 87km and 60km runners had been through here so it was getting pretty churned up. The up hills were particularly difficult as trying to put out more power just resulted in me doing a kind of running man. I resorted to a flat footed hike as the most efficient way to progress through the muddiest parts. On the bright side we were in beautiful native NZ bush, reminding me of where I grew up in the Waitakere ranges west of Auckland. I was passing quite a few people now but it was hard to track which race they were in. At kilometer 48 you come to Humphries Aid station at a little bay on Tarawera lake. This was a remote aid station where the volunteers were dropped off by boat. I think these are the best aid stations as they attract the keenest volunteers. I stopped for the usual top up of bottles and some banana before heading off. The 10km to next aid station was very similar. First we went over a saddle on a ridge between Lake Tarawera and Lake Okataina after which the trail more or less followed the lake, with short rises and descents. Underfoot was the same as the previous 8km. Between these sections I had been hoping to do between 5:30 and 6:00 min/km but ended up doing 7:30 min/km. I wasn’t tracking my pace at the time but I knew I was moving a lot slower than I had hoped for.
At Okataina Lodge aid station I had Mum, Dad and my brother Nathan for crew. It was awesome to see them and I’m so glad they could stick it out in the rain to be there to help me. I changed out some food and refilled bottles. I had begun to feel a bit tired mentally by this point so switched one of my tailwind bottles to a caffeinated Nuun. The section from Okataina Lodge to miller road is the longest section of the course without an aid station. It also has the largest climb of the course gaining about 370m in one climb and 100m in the second. Celia and I had run this a few weeks earlier so it was nice to be in familiar terrain. The climb went well for me, although I couldn’t run I’m accustomed to steeper hikes from training in the mountains near Seattle. I was passing quite a few people, even noticing some 100km bibs when I had the opportunity to glance back. I’d also saved my iPod to use from Okataina Lodge onward. I’d loaded it up with the NZ bands “The Black Seeds” and “Fat Freddy’s Drop.” The Black Seeds were particularly good as their track “Bring You Up” had some inspiring lyrics, a sample:
“Bring you up, girl I wanna bring you up,
Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop
Keep on pushing, till you reach the top!”
Ultra-running was probably not what they had in mind when they wrote the song, but it definitely helped me! I was relieved to reach the top and start the descent. This track was kind of double track, nice and wide with lots of room to choose lines or open up your stride. Unfortunately it was clay which was made extra dicey by the rainfall the track had seen. At some point on this descent I started to slip, instinctively I reached up to grab an overhanging branch to stay upright. Unfortunately I clipped the branch with my ring finger, peeling some splinters bark under my nail. I was stoked that I’d stayed upright but pretty annoyed at my throbbing finger. I stopped to try and pull the bark out but had no success. I guy came flying down the hill close behind me and I asked him if he had any tweezers. As soon as the words came out of my mouth I realized how ridiculous they were, who would race with a pair of tweezers? Realizing there was nothing to do I headed down the trail in pursuit of no-tweezers-dude. Funnily enough it didn’t really hurt too much, but maybe this is just a reflection of what you are putting your body through in races like this. I didn’t have any big splinters in my legs but they were pretty sore too! I’m not sure whether I wanted to get to the next aid station quickly so that they could look at the finger, or whether I was just annoyed with myself but I started pushing a bit more through this section. As part of my effort to go faster I started rolling straight through the big mud puddles resulting in large a build up of mud in my shoes and socks. At the Miller Rd aid station I talked to the Medic for a little bit. He offered to take out the bark but also thought it was good to leave it there and head to the next aid station where there was a follow medical staff (he was a lone medic) concluding there was nothing to be done I headed off toward Blue Lake. This section is road for 4km and then 2km of bush track over to the Blue Lake aid station.
At Blue Lake I had crew again and went straight to the Medical tent to try sort some stuff out. I was pretty confident the worst of the mud so thought this was a good point to change my shoes/socks and let the doctors look at my finger while I did so. I’d also been advised by Tom that this medical station had talcum powder which was great to put in your socks to draw moisture out of your skin. I got rid of the old shoes and socks and Nathan wiped the mud off my feet. The doctors here decided that it would be best for me to go to the finish and then to A&E to get them to get the splinters out. They gave it a bit of a wash and added some disinfectant to the area. The doctors helped me talc up my feet and added extra into my socks. They were probably a bit over qualified to help with this but I appreciated it nonetheless! I also grabbed some Vaseline to add to any area that was sort of rubbing. I had actually been meaning to do this for about 40km but kept getting caught up in the hustle at each aid station and forgetting to ask for it. Running away from that aid station with clean dry feet was the best feeling in the world, it felt like running on pillows!
From this point you run a 5km a loop around Blue Lake. This was nostalgic for me as a we used to compete in a rowing regatta on the lake each year while I was in high school. The rest of the race was fairly uneventful. The course heads to Redwoods from Blue Lake, during this transition it is on road and the forest road for a bit. When you reach Redwoods you start the last climb of the course before following Tokorangi Pa Rd down to the Redwoods aid station. At some point along here dehydration manifested itself in the form of needing to pee all the time but not peeing anything when I did. This was pretty annoying but I guess the other events had distracted me from keeping on top of my drinking plan. I saw Mum and Nathan again at the Redwoods aid station, receiving some quick words of encouragement and a full bottle of plain water before starting the last 5km to the finish. This section is dead flat, going through the bottom part of the Redwoods park before heading back to Rotorua via Sulfur point, named after the geothermal activity in the area. Before I knew it I was at the bowling greens running down the straight to the finish arch. I finished in 10:17, 12th overall. I’d been hoping for top 10 and a much faster time but given the conditions and being delayed dealing with my finger I think ended up alright. At the finish line I spoke briefly with the race organizer, “Mate the mud broke me.” Not the most optimistic choice of words!
At Tarawera everyone is weighed before and after. I’d lost 2kg to dehydration, nothing crazy really but definitely the worst I’ve had it. The doctors had a look at my finger and decided to have a go at getting the splinters out. They anesthetized my finger by performing a ring block, injecting local anesthetic around the circumference of the top of the finger. This numbs the whole finger by numbing the nerves. Once that was working they managed to pull each of the two splinters out with tweezers. Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of the splinters afterward. Funnily enough this was my ring finger on my left hand. I had to wear my wedding ring on a necklace for a few days while the swelling went down!
A few shouts outs. First to Celia who was running her first 100km race at Tarawera. She too found the conditions pretty tough, but she adapted and nailed her race! Hopefully she will have her own write up soon. My crew of Mum, Dad, Ali and Nathan who helped at the aid stations throughout the day. Crewing is tough as you wait around for hours and then see your runner for seconds, you help means a lot and is greatly appreciate. Congrats to my mate Gene who ran the 60km race. It was his second Ultra and he had a good showing coming 4th overall. Also thanks to Tom and Anna for hosting us while in Rotorua!
All in all it was a cool race. When entering I had been looking forward to a fast, runable race and tailored my training as such. I did speed workouts on gravel roads, and tried to target longer intervals and tempos to help try and maintain speed for a long race. On the day it was much tougher than expected. Although the first 40km were really fast the second 40km really wore me down as I worked harder for longer to get through the mud, leaving a tough slog to the finish. However it was awesome to race at home. The event was really well organized and was much more than just the race day. I was stoked that there were a number of international competitors, attracted to our beautiful country by the event. I’m sure I’ll be back to give it another crack when the opportunity arises.