My New Zealand Adventure at Tarawera
After scoping out the course on the Thursday and attending the race briefing and rego on the Friday the support crew plan was set, the temporary tattoo was on my arm, the splits on my other arm and the seam sealed jacket packed. It was race day!
The race started at 6am in the rain and dark amongst the giant sequoias. There are no waves in this race, it’s a straight pack start with a very narrow starting chute, so I was there nice and early and after a brief interview with Ultra-Trail World Tour, not because they thought I’d go well, but because I was wandering around wearing a garbage bag. I merged into the chute and waited as everyone got ready. A Haka was performed in front of the start line, the final words were said and then we were off! I started in about the 6th row which was fine. The race started with a steady, but not too hard, climb on a fairly wide track before narrowing into single trail. I was in a good position with everyone around me moving at a similar pace. It was still very dark as we reached the top of the hill where the first headlamp collection point was, none of the front runners were handing over their headlamps. Then down the hill a little before we started climbing an even bigger pine covered hill just as the sun was starting to come out, then it was down the other side of the hill and into rainforest where the headlamp came back on, as we followed the very muddy track dodging slippery roots and unpredictable puddles.
We emerged from the rainforest on the grass above Blue Lake which was the 1st aid station, but that aid station wasn’t until the 16.4km mark and we’d only run 10km, mum was there cheering me on and one of the other girls in the race came tearing past me. I had no idea what position I was in, but there was the 60km, 85km and relay races all taking place at the same time so it was hard to tell who I was racing. I had no intention of chasing an unknown runner at this stage of the race and was happy to keep my pace, although I had no idea where I was headed, turns out we run around the lake, this part was very scenic as the undulating trail stuck to the edge of the lake the whole way. At 16.4kms I emerged from the bush after my tour of the lake onto the edge of the road above Blue Lake aid station where they were doing a mandatory jacket check then it was down onto the rocky sand of Blue Lake aid station which was crowded with spectators and support crew. I ran along the beach dodging the family of ducks who were getting quite upset by all the runners (the mother was in the water and the ducklings were on the other side of the runners). Mum was calling out from amongst the spectators and I ran up switching out my empty 250ml soft flask for a full one, grabbing a bag of gels & salt, and switching my headlamp for a visor. I ran off with a soft flask of tailwind drinking it until the end of the aid station where I tossed it to the side for mum to collect and I was off again. My splits had already slipped and pretty much became useless, the track was way too slow to aim for the sub 10hr so I decided to ignore them and instead focus on holding a steady pace.
The next 3 aid stations either weren’t accessible or weren’t practical so I wouldn’t be getting support again for the next 40.9kms. It was fine, I was prepared and there were still aid stations so I could refill my water supply. At both the start of the race and after Blue Lake aid station I was carrying 500ml; 250ml in a soft flask on the front of my pack and 250ml in my bladder... Originally I was going to do the race with just a race belt and handheld 500ml, but with the change in mandatory gear and the need to carry a jacket I switched all of that for the lightest weight pack that I owned and a very minimally filled bladder.
The next section of the track was extremely muddy with lots of slippery tree roots to dodge. I would have hated to see it after a thousand more runners had passed along, it was already turning into a quagmire. At first I was just running straight through the mud, until I hit one large mud puddle, sunk up to my shin and then emerged without my left shoe. Shoe recovered I decided that I should maybe try to run around them a bit more... Also, I was ever so very very glad that there are no leeches in NZ. This was 100% leechy, they would have loved it, the wet track, the tasty runners......
At this stage of the race I was still feeling fine, I was a bit worried that I’d gone out too hard while trying to stick to my splits, but as long as I was feeling fine I figured I’d stick to that pace. We had a bit of road running coming into the next aid station at Millar Road and this next section between Millar Road and Okataina Lodge was the longest unsupported section of the race at 16.6km and also with the biggest climb of the day. Coming into the aid station the volunteers were absolutely fantastic as one of them helped me put one litre of water in my bladder, refill my soft flask and then told me to eat whatever I wanted. I filled my little sealy bag which I’d brought for just this occasion with pretzels, chips & hot cross bun (which it turns out had salami on it... kind of weird combination, maybe it’s a Kiwi thing?). While I’m doing this I can hear a voice in the background saying something about third place and how far in front Ruby & Fiona were, I didn’t think he was talking to me until he asked whether I heard him and that was when I learnt I was in third place.... I also told him to “be realistic” when he was saying I was only 15 minutes behind Ruby.
Leaving the aid station the course headed off towards one of the fern covered hills and then into the wet and muddy bush as I started to climb. The track wasn’t crazy steep, about as steep as Palmdale and knowing that even Jason can run Palmdale I figured there was no way I was going to walk this. The only problem was that this hill was a lot longer than Palmdale and I kept on thinking I was coming to the top of it, then there’d be a slight downhill before it was back to more climbing. The course was very scenic amongst the arctic ferns and with the only danger on the course coming from the spiky looking purple thistles I was moving at a good pace on the downhill sections (no snakes!). At this stage there were a couple of other female runners running near me, a bit of leap frogging going on, I knew one of them was in the 60km race, but the others I wasn’t sure about. Not knowing who I was racing was definitely a challenge of this race. I also fell over in front of one of the other female runners after I slid sideways on part of the track and landed on my knees, no damage done, I was just embarrassed.
Back up and running I was welcomed to ‘almost the top’ of the hill by some very excited volunteers, actually all the volunteers were excited. This time I was just as excited as the volunteers that I got to have a nice downhill section next, after completing the ‘almost’ part of the uphill which wasn’t so bad knowing that the next downhill was real. Downhill into Okataina Lodge aid station where a volunteer took my soft flask off me and refilled it with water while I grabbed some coke & ginger beer, then it was straight back onto the trail as it followed the edge of the lake.
This section was a bit trickier with some rocks thrown into the mix. Tree roots I’m fine with, I’m used to that from running Crackneck, but rocks I’m much less used to, so I wasn’t moving as fast as I would have liked, still the pace was consistent with only a couple of guys overtaking me and me overtaking a number of other guys. I also walked a couple of the short but steep climbs. I wasn’t expecting Tarawera Outlet when I came into it, we’d been scoping out this aid station a couple of days before and I knew it was part of the camping ground, but we were still on a trail in the bush when the aid station appeared and there was mum handing me a new full soft flask, some more gels and a baggy of treats that she’d collected from the aid station. I learnt later on that this was her favourite aid station with the volunteers manning it putting on a wonderful show as their personal trainer had them doing exercises while they were helping out runners. Through the aid station I was starting to feel a bit heavy. It was 57.3kms into the race and having to accept that I was really only halfway is always a hard thing, so I did what I always do, break it down. It’s not halfway, it is in fact 5.4km to Tarawera Falls, just 5.4kms that I have to run. Worry about the rest later.....
This next part of the track was truly spectacular, when we’d hiked to the falls a couple of days ago I had no idea that there were even more falls further along the track. There were multiple falls, and even one section where the water disappeared between the rocks and into the earth itself. And we’re not talking Australian waterfalls here, they look pooncy by comparison. The amount of crystal clear water flowing down the river was impressive and the sound of the falls deafening. The scenery and the fact that it was my favourite sort of trail (undulating, squishy underfoot and with a bit of technical work) cheered me up as I came up the track and into the 60km finish point for some runners, and Tarawera Falls aid station for me. With the awesome volunteers refilling my water again I grabbed a quick bite, was told I was in 3rd place still and then I was off into the forest for the next 9.5kms. This part of the forest wasn’t too bad as it appeared to be older pine trees and with lots of pine needles underfoot to soften the landing. But then it was time to climb. I struggled during this climb, my legs were tired, my mind was tired and I was feeling drained. I walked a large section of it, running when it was flat but walking most of the uphill. This was also when I met ‘Compressport Shirt Guy’, who I didn’t so much meet as started to use for pacing, turns out when I talked to him the next day he was doing the same thing. I kept on moving, then we came down into Titoki aid station, another one that mum was able to access.
I was no longer able to eat solid food (this isn’t actually that uncommon), but was still fine on fluids and could force in gels. So Tailwind & Ginger Beer it was as I got some more gels and water, then I was off, 7.7kms of pine forest to Awaroa. I can’t actually remember much of this, it was a bit of a blur, pines, some climbing, more pines, nothing exciting, more pines. Into Awaroa aid station I came, not looking or feeling that great and that’s when I learnt that Ruby had pulled out and I was now in 2nd place. Leaving Awaroa for ‘The loop of despair’ I decided that I liked 2nd. I wanted to come 2nd. Fiona at this stage was still in the loop and 25 minutes ahead of me, I wouldn’t catch her, but I didn’t want the girl behind to catch me either. So it was time to race. The loop as it turns out was actually rather nice, it totally suited me, super steep, and some serious hiking in that loop. Totally fine, coming down the downhill and back into Awaroa I’d picked up.. I wanted to come 2nd!
Then things got weird, there was a camera crew and they were filming me as I spilt coke down my chin, then there was a climb out of Awaroa and I really didn’t want to be seen walking it on camera, so running it was, even on the slightly steeper parts where I might have walked... Hell No! I didn’t want to be seen walking, nor did I want 3rd place (who was only 15 minutes behind me) to catch me. The car with the camera would drive ahead and then stop and film me, then do the same thing again. I have a bit of a weird leaning running style so I’m quite sure I’ll look ridiculous. But at least I was moving and moving towards the finish.
8.1kms to Fishermans Bridge, mostly downhill I came into the second last aid station in pain but very very determined. This is the part where the mental side of ultra’s dominates any physical training that I’ve done. My body is telling me to stop, I can hear the little voices saying “you can stop now”, “you’ve run enough”, “maybe a little rest”, “it hurts, it hurts so much”. But then there’s the overriding voice that’s going “RUN, RUN NOW, RUN”. Mum was at the aid station and gave me my final bits, this aid station had hot food and all! I so wish I could have done a tour of aid stations when I had more time and was feeling better. But not today, mum wasn’t sure she’d make it to the next aid station in time, so I had everything I’d need to get me to the finish line.
4.9kms to River Road, the final aid station of the race, this is a very slight downhill run, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s up or down at this stage, everything hurts. Into River Road aid station and mum had made it, so I dumped my pack, wrapping my mandatory jacket around my waist and taking only a 250ml handheld bottle for the final push. 5kms was all I had left and then I was done. I took off, it felt like I was flying, really I was doing about 6:30 kms... The path came to a bridge across the river, it was still light so I didn’t get to see the bridge all lit up, but it was looking like it would be good, lots of bright lights setup and then across the bridge and into Kawerau, this next section took forever, it was winding along the bank of the river and I kept on thinking that “I’m almost at the finish line” then around the corner and no finish line, just more park... I was still pushing. I kept my pace up and then there it was, a sign and a person pointing and the finishing chute and I was moving, down the chute, across the finish line and into second place. Such a relief, I could now stop running!!! There were cameras and I had to answer some questions... I was a bit out of it, uh, I’m sure it’ll be amusing.... I’d finished 2nd place female in a time of 10:56:20 (22 minutes behind Fiona in 1st, and 28 minutes in front of another Fiona in 3rd) and 23rd overall. It wasn’t the sub 10 I would have liked, but it did cover the ‘Top 5’ which was my other ultimate goal.
Mum rushed me off not long after I crossed the line telling me to get changed before I got hypothermia, it was raining pretty heavy at this stage and had been raining off and on all day so I was completely soaked. Warmed up and drinking ginger beer in the recovery tent I started to feel better and we headed back to Rotorua where I soaked in a mineral bath for a while before attempting to eat a very large Buffalo Burger with chips (I made it about halfway through) my day was done.