Tarawera Ultramarathon. Ever since I had come across this event last year, ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ and finally entered on the basis that I would regret not doing it, it has been the major focus of my running. Well, I say that, but the organisation of my running is somewhat reflected in my updates of my blog – disorganised at best. Post Melbourne marathon, my training has been haphazard and driven largely by what can be fitted around crazy work and travel. “I’ve got plenty of time” soon became “is it Christmas already? Sh*t, there’s only 6 weeks to go”. There was no structured plan as there had been (mostly) for the marathon – it was more a case of try to get some longer runs in as I knew that long distance endurance is my weakest discipline. In the run up to Christmas I had managed several 25-30km runs and I hoped to get up to 35-40km over the Christmas break. Sadly, a virus put pay to these aspirations – by the time I was properly recovered there was only 4 weeks to go…. not the time to try to squeeze in a cheeky marathon.
Race HQ in Rotorua
So, I would do the 60km having only run some 30km training runs – other runners do this, right? Let’s ignore the fact that they are seasoned ultra runners, I have never run an ultra and my longest run has been a flat road marathon. However, unlike a road marathon I had no specific goals, other than to ensure that I enjoyed and completed the event. The words of Nick Cimdins, passed on from Kevin Tory rang in my ears – “Ask yourself, am I absolutely loving this? If not, then slow down”.
The night before – a walk to Lake Rotorua
Time was very much a secondary consideration (as luck would later have it). So, despite some pre-race fretting (“Which shoes?” “Would my recently tweaked ankle hold up?”), the lead up wasn’t too bad considering the event I was undertaking.
Lorraine and I had decided to make a major holiday around this run and my sister’s wedding celebration near Auckland. Our journey was smooth and on race day eve we found ourselves settled in the B&B less than 1km from the start line. No pre-race worries about getting to the start on time for me. Before I even knew it, my alarm was going off at 4.50am and I was getting my kit together. Our accommodation was only 10 mins walk from the Redwoods Visitor centre and Lorraine very kindly came down to dark and chilly start area with me to wish me luck and see me off; I was very grateful, not least as it kept last-minute nerves at bay. The start area was a sight to behold – pitch dark under the redwood trees, but illuminated by a thousand head torches bobbing around with nervous tension.
Race briefing – no ibuprofen!
Thankfully the tension was short-lived as the minutes ticked over to 6am and we were off. Well, sort of. The huge popularity of the race meant that a thousand runners were trying to negotiate tracks that really aren’t designed for that number. Had it been a shorter race I would have been kicking myself for getting stuck and not starting further forward, but on this occasion I was quite happy to stick towards the back of the pack and take stock, using the maxim that if it feels too slow then it’s probably about right. The day started to dawn and the head torches were unceremoniously dumped at 4km, and the run settled into more of a flow.
There was the odd conversation (I heard much talk of Ironman races and other enormous feats), but it was mainly about settling into a rhythm. I fell into conversation with a fellow runner, Rachelle – one of those conversations you get into once you finally find your right pace. We hit a good rhythm, drank and ate at the first aid station and then made our way along some of the beautiful single tracks around the lakes in the area. Despite a plethora of tree roots (the trail runners nemesis), the good news was that my ankle, the source of so much worry in the week leading up to the event, was holding up. My amateur rock taping following expert instruction on YouTube might not get me a job as a physio with Ross and Caleb at FSM, but it was holding out well enough.
Around 15km in… first lake of the day
Slowly we made it to the 20 km mark; now the sun was up and the temperature was rising. Nothing too uncomfortable, but it was only going to get warmer. It was going to be a beautiful day. It was around this point that I found out just how wonderful are the volunteers at the aid stations in Tarawera – a young girl grabbed my soft bottle off me at the aid station as I made my way to the water and electrolyte and filled it up while I had some lollies and crisps. Every second counts, eh? This was the last aid station for around 17km, and we set off into the woodland. Despite some soreness in my hip, I felt pretty good – I wasn’t going fast, but I had plenty in the tank and that’s what I wanted. With my relative lack of endurance training, I needed to delay the inevitable point where really started to struggle for as long as possible.
Sweet single track
I actually pulled away from the group I was running with, but the pace still felt right and I was going OK. I really wasn’t aiming for a time, but at 25km I was on track for an 8h finish if I ran an even split. I knew that this was unlikely, but felt happy that I wasn’t doing as badly as I might have feared. Positive vibes, this may hurt later, but you are doing OK. Even at 30km all was well, though my hip was starting to feel more than just sore and the discomfort was spreading to my knee. I stopped stretched, kneaded by hips and glutes, but I couldn’t really shake it. I slowed down and in order to avoid worsening it I subconsciously started to drive more with my left leg. “OK, you’re slowing down, but you will finish this in 8.30ish. All good.”. By the time I had reached Lake Okataina at around 38km, my left knee and hip were also hurting. I sat down (was there a better feeling?) and drank and ate. After a minute or two I pulled myself up and pushed on… after all, there was only 22km to go, right? A half-marathon. I do that all the time in training – no sweat. However, by now the pain in my knees was getting bad. Anything downhill was starting to really hurt. Even running/jogging started to become very uncomfortable, so I settled into a quick power walk. This didn’t hurt nearly as much and I started to re-do those mental calculations. “You can still get this done in just over 9 hours – this bit was always going to be tough. Stay strong.” I texted Lorraine with an update and pushed on.
What I didn’t really appreciate was how much more technical is the second half of the course… the hills were no problem (a legacy of training on the likes of Dodd’s, Glasgow, Channel 10 and Ridge Tracks), the lungs were no problem, but the technical undulating track was starting to really hurt my knees. Despite only power walking (though trying to get as close to 9 min / km pace as possible), relatively few people overtook me. Even then I managed to make up some ground on others… but even when people passed there was always a kind word of encouragement. I even met someone who recognised the DTR top and asked if I knew Cheryl… is there a runner that she doesn’t know?
Beautiful lake views in the final 20km
Even just a short conversation stays with you for a few hundred metres… and that’s another few hundred metres that you are closer to your destination. By now, the field had really emptied out and the kms were being ticked off very slowly. I tried to resist the temptation to check Strava on my phone (my Garmin had decided only to be waterproof once it had rain on the inside a week before), but succumbed occasionally only to despair at my slow progress. I was going through such a beautiful section, along the shore of the lake, but was struggling to enjoy it as much as I would have liked. “Why didn’t you sign up for a 50km for your first ultra? Then you’d be nearly done by now. You’ve still got ages to go. Your knees really hurt. This is going to take ages…”
The thought did cross my mind… what if my legs really get bad? Will it make me stop? Thankfully the pain was bad, but not unbearable. I just needed to keep power walking and I would get there. It would hurt, yes. But I could do it. I just needed to push through this hard bit and tick the kms down… 48, 50, 52, 54…. only around an hour to go at this pace, you can do that. I make it into the final aid station and am so elated at hitting the final mark, getting a drink and some food that I completely forget to ask them for paracetamol for the pain. “Damn, I’ll just have to suck it up.” (Belle, you can probably guess what the real words I used were…).
My estimated finish time has gone completely out of the window, it was going to be 9.30 or thereabouts, but now it’s just about finishing. Like all good courses, there are killer bits at the end. This race didn’t have a monster hill – no, my nemesis today would be the rocks and steps to climb down. The anticipation was almost as bad as the pain as I winced tackling technical bits that would be chicken feed on normal training runs. I run past someone who tells me that there’s about 500m to go… and then a friend corrected them, saying it was over 1km! Not to worry, it doesn’t really matter now… nearly there! There’s a beautiful stretch of single track by the river and suddenly a photographer who forced me into a run (first rule of trail running!). I hear a loudspeaker announcing finishers and suddenly around the corner I’m there!
It’s a great feeling, but the area is a little strange as it’s a finish only for the 60km… the 85 and 100 km runners have a way to go yet. I pull out my phone and finally stop my Strava; if there’s ever a race I want to #stravaproveit then it’s this one. Good job that I didn’t go any slower, I had 2% battery remaining! My time is 9h36, but I’m really not bothered about that… it’s the same as the first time I did the marathon, the feeling of achievement is immense.
Nonetheless, I sit down, have a banana and just take stock. Well, I’m bloody tired for a start, but ever the practical I head off to find my drop bag. By the drop bag area there’s a small lake with runners cooling their aching bodies. If there’s ever a time I could have done with an ice bath, it was after my first ultra, so I lose the shoes and back pack and head in. The water is cold, but soothes the legs… After relaxing in the sun I’m out and changed. The only challenge about being a 60km finisher at Tarawera is the need to find a lift to the ‘real’ finish line in Kawerau; thankfully there is a kind of system and after a few minutes I grab a lift with the cameraman who has been working on the TV show for the race (see it here – it’s awesome: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAdidMT1owc) and with two American guys who have run the 60km.
I try to call Lorraine and realise that my phone has died; so my last contact has been me telling her that I was struggling and in pain and would be running for over 9 hours… I hope that she’s not too worried! We arrived at the main finish line and as much as I wanted to enjoy the atmosphere and celebrate the other runners, I was suddenly very tired and very sore. I grab a drink and make for one of the buses back to Rotorua, at least 45 min away. I started to stiffen up badly and feel dehydrated; I persuaded the driver to drop me at the entrance to Redwoods Forest, just 50 m from my B&B – nonetheless the short distance is a very painful hobble. Still, I get to see my lovely wife who has supported me through wanting to do this crazy stuff… and that made the day complete. Job done.