The Tarawera Ultra Marathon is not really an event, more a phenomenon. It’s a big adventure however you break it down. In terms of distance, participants, logistics, support, scenery, catering and social media. This is due in part to the fact it’s the second race in the Ultra Trail World Tour and therefore attracts international attention and international participants. In part to the course’s proximity to Auckland our largest centre of population and home to people who have the disposable income required to compete in large-scale running events. But the main reason is former Race Director Paul Charteris has grown the event from the grassroots up and he clearly has a talent for promotion, developing and maintaining great relationships and for building high performing teams. You can find out everything you’d ever want to know and more here:
I share this link with a word of warning. It may serve as a distraction. Should you sign up to the Facebook page you will need to exercise exceptional self control or risk recording a new personal worst in terms of work productivity.
As a first time participant, the three things made the TUM special. Despite its scale it retains its small town/personal vibe. The inclusive spirit and the race is run by runners for runners. Elite trail runners from around the world, plus local legends come to compete against each other, new course records were set in 2015 but most of the participants are hobby trail runners here chasing personal challenges and goals. Many competitors are delighted just to finish. The race embraces all comers. The cut off times are decidedly generous although it is made clear that you are supposed to actually run. This year with a new Race Director on board Paul Charteris was able to run in his own event for the first time. Having spotted him at one of the aid stations I can attest to the fact that he suffered along with the rest of us.
The race is surprisingly flexible given the number of people involved and the potential hazards. I guess if you’ve managed your way through fire risks and tropical cyclones you develop a certain level of resilience and confidence in your ability to cope with whatever cards you’re dealt. I particularly liked the fact there were three choices of race distance and you could change your mind right up to the finish line. Compulsory gear was weather dependent rather than prescribed in advance. Participants were able to leave drop bags at a variety of aid stations despite the fact that there was an abundance of food and drink at regular intervals along the course. A friend ran 100km carrying nothing but the clothes on his back, including the free race t-shirt. If there hadn’t been a shirt in his race pack no doubt he would have run shirtless. Other participants made full use of the drop bag system to stash changes of clothes, their own nutritional mixes, hand written motivational speeches and whatever else they felt like.
The race organisers clearly understand the 100km experience and go out of their way to make it as painless as they can. Head torches can be dropped off as soon as it gets light for later collection, race photos are free, pacers can run for free – the latter is a superb idea, even non elites can benefit greatly from having a buddy to talk to for the last 30-40km of monotonous forestry roads. The food and drink on offer is incredible. Prior to the race I thought people were joking when they told me there would be pizza and chips and even if it was true how would anyone be able to eat that stuff? There was a wide variety of solid food and for those out on the course for over 12 hours you can definitely munch your way through hot cross buns, kumara chips, crisps, watermelon and the rest. There were people to make your sandwiches for you. A sandwich maker apologised for having vegemite instead of marmite. Don’t fancy water or electrolyte drink? No problem there was coke, ginger beer and numerous other sugary beverages to slurp on. The 85 and 100km competitors are weighed before and after the race allegedly to monitor hydration but I’m betting anyone who was found to have lost weight was handed a doggy bag containing aid station leftovers.
Support is a priority. Many locals turn out to cheer strangers on. Every race number comes with the entrants first name emblazoned on it so supporters can cheer you on using your name. Other runners encourage each other and help locate drop bags, give tips on course terrain and running strategies. The volunteers at the aid stations were friendly and encouraging. I appreciated the people who chatted with me when I was feeling good and while I was less appreciative of the people who chatted to me when I was feeling tired I could at least understand that they meant well. The funny signs towards the end were a great distraction as were the coloured lights at River Road and the unexpected final aid station just 2.5km before the finish line.
As High Five-0 Challenge runners highly visible in our red shirts Grant and I came in for special attention throughout the race with people wanting to high-five us and find out what other days we were running. We felt like minor celebrities being videoed and interviewed while on the move. As Wellington runners we were fortunate to have companions from the Wellington Running Meet Up (WoRM) on hand to cheer us on from their unofficial office at the Fisherman’s Bridge aid station. Some of those running addicts would have dearly loved to be racing but were prevented from doing so by injury so I really appreciated their generosity in turning up to support those of us who could run. Amanda in particular was hard to miss in her banana suit. If you are a Wellington based runner I recommend you check WoRM out. Amanda’s blog is great too.
Relentless forward progress
5.20am on Saturday morning we lever ourselves out of the warm car into the chilly dawn. The Redwoods Forest Visitor Centre is a hive of activity with roughly 1000 runners either queuing for last-minute bathroom duties or taking bad pictures in the dim light. Coloured glow sticks add to the Magic Faraway Tree ambience. Eddie, Sarah (100km) and Gareth (60km) warm up while Grant and I make our way to the front and join the sea of red shirts for a quick group photo with the other High Five-0 support runners. You can check out what the High Five-0 Challenge entails here:
And feel free to make a contribution via my fundraising page here:
Grant and I both signed up for the 60km run but at registration the previous day we both upgraded, me to the 100km and Grant to the 85km. Our logic being if we made a tangible commitment beforehand it would be harder to pike later. Inspired by Mal Law’s example we were keen to make the day special by pushing our boundaries plus I had fundraised on the basis I would run 100km. The longest Grant had run before was 52km over a year ago. I’d done some longer runs in the Tararuas where the terrain is the polar opposite to that encountered on the TUM. Training shortcomings aside we knew running 100/85km was theoretically possible. It was also likely to be somewhat easier than the 50 mountain marathons up 50 peaks on 50 consecutive days Mal was planning.
After an enthusiastic countdown the race is underway. We enter the gloom of the forest in slow motion. The trail cannot accommodate everyone running at their own pace at this stage but nobody seems concerned, you don’t run 100km by sweating the small stuff. Without discussing it Grant and I have decided to stick together for the first 60km at least. We establish our respective roles early on. Grant wants to avoid going out too fast so I’m his pacer/hand brake. He is my numbers man. Until its battery dies his watch is timing our kilometres and telling us how far to the next aid station with regular beeps marking our progress. Grant is also my train conductor. He has to pull his timetable out of his bag at regular intervals and announce the name and distance to the next aid station.
I’m sure there is some tough racing going on up front but towards the back the event is remarkably sociable. We form endorphin assisted instant bonds with total strangers discussing the High Five-0 Challenge, training, where people are from, what they are wearing ( the guys in tutus were begging to be asked), and what they hope to achieve. I’m on the lookout for people I knew prior to the race. Sure enough I’m soon hailed by Jesse a climbing friend and we catch up before he ducks off to answer a call of nature. We get to talk more later on as we leap-frog each other for most of the first 60km.
Grant and I both trained in the Tararuas so we’re finding the terrain disconcertingly smooth. At the race briefing we were warned there might be leaves on the track. We joke about leaves. We joke about all the aid stations but it’s a fine, calm day so we make a point of filling up our water bottles at Okareka because the next stretch of track through to Okataina stretches for nearly 17km, the longest gap between aid stations we’ll have to manage all day.
Watched by cheering spectators we plod up the asphalt on Millers Road for 3km past houses on one side and bush and lakeside on the other and then it is down to the Western Okataina Walkway. We negotiate a series of long gentle ascents followed by shorter descents through native forest and open clearings. All the ascents are runnable so I’m slightly mystified as to why the times for the 60km Tarawera are slower than for the Kepler. The Tarawera has more height gain overall but the Kepler course has one huge technical ascent. Possibly the Tarawera 60km attracts a different type of trail runner to the Kepler or perhaps the lure of the loot at the aid stations and the chance to pause and chat to fellow competitors is just too tempting.
At Okataina we pause to eat some solid food. I explain to Grant that we need to have mini lunches at each of the next three aid stations. I grab a peanut butter sandwich and add some crisps to it. Pieces of orange and watermelon go down well. Grant is a hot cross bun fan telling me he is delighted that they are already appearing in the supermarket even though Easter is still a good six weeks away. Grant seems to be partial to bananas as well. He eats one at each aid station and takes more with him. I’m beginning to get why his pack is so heavy. We eye up the salt tablets and grab a few of those as well stashing them in our running packs unsure whether we actually need them but reluctant to pass them by. We spot Chris and pop over for a quick hug and words of encouragement, read the times that the leaders passed through the aid station off the whiteboard then we are off.
The next section through to Humphries Bay starts off easy with short steep ascents and gentle descents through the bush on the Eastern Okataina Track. We can see out to Mt Tarawera. At the Humphries Bay aid station we down more solid food and water for the section through to the Lake Tarawera outlet . I’m starting to feel a bit flat. When we reach the Outlet I tell Grant to carry on, we can regroup at Tarawera Falls. I canter on at my own pace getting passed at regular intervals by 60km gallopers surging to their finish line. This section of track is well manicured and the scenic highlight of the course following the river and the impressive Tarawera falls. For the first time I think perhaps I should have carried my camera.
After the cool calmness and relative solitude of the rainforest trails Tarawera Falls aid station is hot, noisy, crowded and chaotic. I’m glad to see Gareth who has finished his 60km race with a personal best. He kindly offers to take some gear off me though I can think of nothing I want to surrender. After searching for and failing to find my drop bag I decide to push on. Grant is ten minutes ahead. I’m still feeling a bit flat and without the shade of the bush I’m going to get hot plus on the forestry roads you can see a long way ahead which is a bit of a double-edged sword. You get a good idea of what is coming up and who is in front of you, I think about how to use this mentally to assist the journey ahead.
“I need to keep on running” I think to myself. The previous night Grant had shown me Bryon Powell’s book on ultra-marathons. Part of the title contains the mantra “relentless forward progress”. I repeat this to myself as I jog along interchanging it with my other mantra which I picked up off a t-shirt, “in my mind I am a Kenyan.” My little psych up was well timed. As soon as I ducked around the bend away from the crowds of supporters a long hill stretched before me and bright sunshine bore down on me. Experience has taught me that lows do not last, if you just keep going you will eventually feel better. Time to deploy my third manta; “this too will pass”. As I trooped up the forestry trails I set myself mini goals of catching up to runners ahead of me. Using a combination of power walking up the inclines and slow jogging the rest I was able to do this. Although I don’t recall actually passing anyone I did keep people in line of sight and this was the motivational boost I needed.
By the time I rolled into the Titoki aid station at around the 70km mark I was in the zone mentally and knew I could go the whole way. Even so I was delighted to hear Grant’s voice shouting out my name. He’d decided to wait for me and to do the full 100km course. This news was almost as good as the kumara chips on offer. Grant and I took on the next section in good spirits but there was no denying our legs were tired. “In my mind I am a Kenyan”. We adopted the jog and walk strategy I’d employed on the previous leg keeping other participants in sight as a way of monitoring our progress. Grant’s watch gps had died by now so we used my old school watch for monitoring the time although Grant would frequently pull out his cell phone to check the time. Fatigue led him to forget I was wearing a watch or he thought I was too fatigued to read the time accurately!
About three-quarters of the way to the Awaroa aid station as we walked and jogged along the rolling undulations that characterise the Puhi Puhi Road we heard a voice beside us and Chris clapped each of us on the shoulder. This good news boosted our spirits further. Chris was running steadily in accordance with his race strategy of breaking the course down into twenty x five kilometre sections. We urged him on pleased his Achilles was not causing problems. He joked afterwards that the best cure for an Achilles injury is not acupuncture, beer or rest but running 100km.
Shortly after Chris passed us I picked up the pace leaving Grant to one of his many tree watering excursions (he was definitely rehydrating well) heading up the final undulation to the Awaroa aid station. I caught sight of Chris in the distance about to confront the Loop of Despair and waved to Karen from the Wellington Running Meet Up Group (WoRM) who had just completed it. After grabbing some watermelon and a few gels and double checking the route with the aid station attendants I collected Grant and we set off again.
Having failed to study the map prior to the race I didn’t know that the next 5km was known as the Loop of Despair, which was probably just as well. This was a section Grant found particularly tough but I really enjoyed as it was uphill, a bit more technical and a welcome change from the monotony of four-wheel drive track. The impromptu New Zealand Idol demo put on by a runner wearing a yellow fluro jacket in front of us who we had already dubbed “the Kenyan” helped too. He was singing along to the music on his ipod and gesticulating wildly. He had a red shoe and a blue shoe and I kept thinking that I must get the story behind this though I never did, not even when we shook hands post-race. At the top of the hill I decided to descend quickly and wait for Grant back at the aid station.
After enjoying a speedy downhill glide overtaking a few runners on the way I met Stephen a tramping friend heading for the Loop of Despair. While I stopped to chat every single runner I had just passed overtook me. At the aid station Paul Charteris, arrived looking very tired. I was glad to be able to wish him all the best. Unfortunately with his intimate knowledge of the course he knew exactly what lay in store for him.
Grant and I refilled our water vessels and hit the Puhi Puhi road again heading towards the Mangawhio turnoff. The roads seemed to be getting longer and longer. We decided we needed to up the ante and do more jogging than walking or we would never finish. When we passed a sign saying 5.3km to go to Fisherman’s Bridge we tried to lift our tempo. The next 5km was easily the longest of the entire course for both of us. Time just seemed to stand still. We made the discovery that running was actually less painful than jogging or walking. This enabled us to keep running pretty much all the way to Fisherman’s Bridge. We gave each other a big high-five for this achievement.
By now we were celebrating any tiny win and to pass and then be repassed by the same bunch of people. The level of camaraderie built as we empathized with each other’s pain. I have total respect for those runners who were racing solo. I found having Grant for company a huge morale boost. I can see why people have pacers for the last 40km of a 100km event – someone to talk to! Fisherman’s Bridge was staffed by WoRMers and some High Five-0 supporters and these friendly faces gave us yet another boost. We had our photos taken. Possibly there was a “most shattered looking person on the course” competition. My winner’s award must still be on its way.
The next 5km leg is along the River road. Grant deployed a fresh coping mechanism. He announced he was imagining he was on a training run beside the Hutt River. I was content to be pulled along in his wake. Our pace seemed unchanged. I suspect Grant probably runs the Hutt River 5km a little bit quicker than we made it to the River Road. The River Road aid station was delightful. The attendants were rocking a pink theme with lots of pink lights and decorations and little signs joking about how far we’d come and what lay ahead. Most of the detail passed me by but I do recall commenting on the sign that said “nine toe nails was the latest fashion”. We got good crowd support here which was great as it was starting to get dark and we were wondering how we would cope in the forest with only one head torch between us. Grant had given his to Gareth at the 60km mark as at that stage he only planned to run 85km which would have had him finish in daylight. Checking the time we estimated we would finish about 9pm.
From River Road we ran for 2.5km and encountered another aid station that we weren’t expecting. This also gave us a boost though we didn’t stop preferring to push on as there was only 2.5km to go and we wanted to get the thing done.The next 2.5km seemed to go on forever but we kept jogging grateful for the glow sticks and some fairy lights lighting our way through the forest. My head torch battery was fading faster than my legs forcing us to reduce speed. Several people with better head torches overtook us. Out in the open and weaving our way through parkland to the Kawerau finish we spotted Tim Day the Race Director running towards us, he offered us words of encouragement as he sped past obviously on his way to lend Paul Charteris some support as he headed towards the finish line.
Finally the much-anticipated and brightly lit finish line came into sight. We jogged over it together as the race announcer said Grant had run 85km. Grant and I both corrected him. Grant corrected him several times. It was also announced that Grant liked hot cross buns. I turned to Grant with eyebrows raised, “how the hell did they know that?” Grant explained that at one of the aid stations there was a whiteboard for leaving comments. Above the clapping and cheering we heard Sarah calling out to us then she emerged from behind the lights to hug and congratulate us. High fives all round. We were stoked to finish but having Sarah, who ran a superb race wait around for hours to greet us at the end was a special highlight. We had gone the distance.