Tarawera Ultramarathon

Three weeks into my holiday of a lifetime I found myself standing on the start line of a 102km Ultramarathon in New Zealand.

New Zealand I have always loved you ever since some 16 years ago I set foot on your land. So I was back for the 4th time. Having spent the last few weeks exploring Wellington, Queenstown, Fiordland and Rotorua. It had so far been an amazingly breathtaking adventure. First baking in New Zealand’s’ hottest summer on record, whilst walking up a few mountains, to the 3 day Routeburn Track which turned into 4 days due to the former tropical cyclone hitting the area leaving us trapped on the track for a day whilst the torrential rain and flooding eased. Then Kayaking on Doubtful Sound and Cycling the Roxburgh Gorge, all this fun hadn’t left me that much time for running.

There’s a real purity in New Zealand its actually not an easy thing to find in our world any more – Elijah Wood

I was relying on my general fitness and stubborn mindset to see me through my next ultra challenge; New Zealand’s’ largest Ultra marathon ‘The Tarawerea Ultra’. With a choice of distances which could be changed until the day before race day, a fully marked course and ample aid stations, being in another country the whole ‘outfit’ of the race really appealed to me. I get to explore a vast land of sacred trails that wouldn’t normally be explored. So let the adventure commence.

We travel not to escape life but for life not to escape us

Optimistic and fully fit I would have loved to have had a go at a sub 12 hour given I had completed the White Rose Ultra 60 (miles) in the UK in November last year in 11 hours 20 of which 3 hours of that was in the dark. Mathematics told me that 12 hours may have been feasible on a ‘very runnable course’. But unfortunately, 2 weeks after the White Rose Ultra I went back to running too soon and picked up one of those evil injuries that I am prone to – MTSS (Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome) which prevented me from banking in some nice long runs. Instead, I hit the swimming pool with small commutes to work and also practised time on feet by doing some long walks in the Peak District – an English ‘National Park’ layered in elegant Gritstone and Limestone. That alongside torrential rain that New Zealand’s’ Met Office had kindly ordered two days prior to the event, especially thanking my best Kiwi friend and fellow travel companion; Mel who works for the Met office meant my goalposts were adjusted to ‘Finishing in one piece’.

The event was a huge affair starting off with various activities a few days before. A traditional Powhiri Welcome at Te Aronui a Rua Marae, (the meeting house) in Te Puia was just the start of something very special, a welcome onto the sacred site and the land that we would run on.

We would then look around Te Puia and marvel at the spouting geysers, bubbling mud and hot pools steaming from the earths crust.  Despite the horrendous weather it didn’t put off any of the runners to look around this spectacular Geothermal Park. All part of the race entry fee.

Then it was Expo time. I am normally not a fan of Expos especially after despising the Expo at London. But this was a nice mini expo, full of ultra running porn yes but not too ‘in your face’. I picked up one of the official and limited TUM Buffs (I had worked out in my stalk face moments that TUM stands for Tarawera Ultra-marathon – doh!) I had to return later in the torrential rain to register, have kit check and be weighed. The first time I would have been weighed for a race.

I  had a play around with the Wall, lots of hashtag signs to play around with on the great wall of fame where all our names had been printed out. A cheesy but a must for a photo or two. I was rather pleased to see my name up there with the other 1200 or so runners. Phew. The B+ compulsory kit had been applied, which involved a thermal top, waterproof with taped seams and a buff or hat. I also took an extra buff and put a spare thermal top in my drop bag along with gloves, a spare tee and head-torch which I would leave at one of the many aid stations to pick up later. Because there were ample aid stations I wouldn’t need much nutrition to carry myself.

The aid stations also had Tailwind which I had started using again towards the end of last year on a couple of Ultra’s in the UK. I only had a snickers bar (which said ‘broken’ on it) and a couple of GU Gels which I had picked up at the local sports shop in Rotorua, having never used GU Gels before it was a gamble but I always tend to gamble with my ‘ultra running diet’ anyway.

I was staying about 20 minute walk from the start of the race which was at Government gardens in the centre of Rotorua. I was planning on walking to the start at 4am in the morning to catch one of 25 buses that would leave between 5 and 5.20am to take us the hour long journey to the start at Kawerau.

A good traditional cuppa helped me out of that wet walking journey to the start. The kitchen area of the accommodation was only open 7am until 10pm and the reception staff wouldn’t unlock the kitchen for me, and didn’t quite understand the need for a cuppa tea and some hot water to make some porridge before a 102km run. I asked then to borrow a kettle. ‘A kettle?’ they questioned ‘Oh a jug’ they said, er yeah as long as it boils water I don’t care what you call it.

So they kindly gave me the keys to an empty (former waterlogged) room and a ‘jug’. Another guy who was racing found out I had the keys to the jug and came to find me, and offered me a lift to the start in trade for some hot water – deal. I am on for that, and I was utterly grateful not because I am so lazy I didnt want to walk 20 minutes but it was still severely New Zealand ‘wet’.

The morning arrived and we got on one of the many buses to Kawerau. The chit chat on the bus was very standard. Here I was a million miles from the UK but very similar chit chat, I had to smile. The ultra porn was all the same apart from some had MacPac and Kathmandu in place of UK brands, Mountain Warehouse and perhaps Blacks.

Still heavily raining when we arrived at the start, the RD decided to get us all out of the shelter building that we were all huddling under for the briefing about 20 minutes before we were to begin.

The 102km runners would line up in the field and the 62 87 and relay runners would be shipped out to their respective places on route to begin their journeys. This was a very complex operation. These runners would merge with us 102km runners later in the game. Meanwhile, at 4am in the morning, the 100 miler runners had already set off for miles and miles of gleaming torture.

7am still raining and the countdown was on. I was supporting shorts, tee and waterproof with my compulsory gear in numerous dry bags in my backpack. I stood there on the start line with some of the top ultra runners in the world. I positioned myself mid-pack questioning what the hell I was doing out here at such a huge event feeling rather out of my depth.

Only 4 people knew I was doing this – My lovely Kiwi friend Mel, who I had been travelling with, her friend ‘Paula’ who had done TUM before and whom I had met a few days previous for a bit of a race briefing, my Kiwi Massage Therapist John who Mel kindly put me onto and my best friend Becky back in the UK who I think a lot about a lot of the time. I apologise for not telling anyone else, well no I don’t apologise, I didnt want to broadcast on the internet I was on holiday for 4 weeks for I may as well have put a sign outside saying ‘Come and rob my house’. I smiled to myself anonymously. Many runners had paces or family cheering them on, I just had me and my feet it was a refreshing solitary feeling. And before I could think anymore we were off.

The first couple of miles felt like the whole world was infront of me I could see a stream of runners heading for the streams of water that would lay ahead. But little did I know that I was around mid pack and running quite comfortably. My lack of confidence always gets the better of me. Through the golf course someone got told off for short cutting and not staying on the marked pathway. Come on runners repsect the land, whoseever it is.

Then it was onto single trail bush winding in and out and round of round through thick forestary drapped with wet ferns and delightfully bright native vegetation. Around the trail it was comfortably going, the lush bush glissering specatcularly as the raindrops came pelting down. There was nothing we could do but to soak in the rain. Running in the rain is just exercise therapy and a shower all at the same time (even for 102km) – what more would you want on a Saturday morning? Oh yes, your local Park run I suppose?

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass its about learning to dance in the rain

The first checkpoint at Fisherman’s Bridge was around 6 or 7 miles, (10km). I had worked out the distance in miles because I just can’t work in km’s very well. – I didn’t see any chocolate fish at the aid station, a New Zealand staple, a marshmallow shaped fish covered in chocolate with ripple-like scales on them. Nor did I see any ‘fuish and chips’ but they did have a delightful buffet of peanuts, jellies (sweets like jelly babies), chips (crisps), water and free mixed tailwind. I got cheered in ‘Go Helen’ Well done Helen it was like everyone knew me, yet no one knew who I was. I smiled and thanked them as I grabbed some top up water and some jellies and went on my way.

The aid stations were well placed apart, the longest being 10 miles after Fisherman’s Bridge and one or two later in the game. Others ranged from 4 to 6 or 7 miles apart so there was no need to carry too much food or liquid at any one time. The event was cup-less, more and more events are going cup-less and I think its a grand idea.

The rugged rain followed the mass of runners pounding the trail. The hood went up, the hood came down. I felt like an egg slowing simmering, it was humid but at the same time I didn’t want to get cold even though I am told many a times that skin is waterproof. It just all become a bit of an exhilarating blur for a while, as I ran through the wide forestry tracks playing with the delicate and sometimes aggressive raindrops. 

Reality is wrong, dreams are for really

I was connecting with myself and my surroundings nothing mattered, I was a million miles from home. Simply embracing myself, the selfish me, just me and of course and the rhythm of my feet, my breathing and my body as the downpours continued to cascade down from the grey murky skies.

Through more bush we ran. There was always enough space but always someone to chase at the same time. At one point there were a a few girls running together, I thought I would use them to keep momentum up. One infront dancing through the puddles, one behind watching me dance through the puddles. I remember this section quite well as we entered the goblin like forest where moss draped elegantly around the trees, and little elves stood there clapping us on straight into another aid station.

To hear nothing but breath,
To feel nothing but heartbeat,
To feel so much like hell,
Running so close to heaven,
This is the Runner’s High.

I left the other girls after a quick fill up at the aid station and went on my merry way . Through more delicate bush, undulating but nothing too challenging at this point. I heard the roaring of the Tarawera Falls well before we’d reached this spectacular gushing of water surging from the high cliff face. Some runners posing for photos to marvel at this great monstrosity of water. I’d have loved to have stopped and taken a photo but I knew I had to keep running as it was still very wet and I really didn’t want to get my phone out of three dry bags.

The Six Golden Rules of Running:
and keep Running.

The next aid station was soon upon me, 200 metres before each aid station a sign would let us know we were about to approach. Each one presenting some different sort of entertainment or theme. One of the aid stations involved running across a bridge and then out again which was a bit disorientating for me at first, and I didn’t hang around too long. A quick top up with the tailwind and water and a handful of jellies as well as mistakenly picking up a Marmite sandwich and I went on my way. Each aid station had signs indicating the distance to the next aid station as well as how far we’d travelled; 46km in and 16.4km (10 miles in my language) to the next food store. My marmite mistake left me gagging as I am definitely in the hate camp of Marmite. I quickly washed it down with half my Snickers bar that had travelled all the way from the UK, despite the wrapper saying ‘Broken’ on it I felt very unbroken at this point in time. Maybe Snickers needs to make some motivational wrappers instead, especially the word ‘Awesome’.

The torrential rain meant that the second half of the course was more of a mud bath, more so than the exhilarating mud-pools, bubbling through the earth’s crust back in Rotorua. Some have estimated that it was around 20 miles of shear mud and that perhaps wasn’t an over-exaggeration. Ankle deep, sticky, many a foot would sink deep into the rich Terracotta soil waterlogged with torrential rain for many a miles to follow.

From Tarawera Outlet to Millar road could have been labelled as the ‘technical bit’. For anyone who has done the Scottish Highland Fling (first 53 miles of the West Highland Way in the UK) it reminded me of the rocky section across Loch Lomond but in greater New Zealand style with more tree roots, more mud and more rocky boulders to scramble over. A little mud never hurt a girl.

At one point I helped a woman called Dawn who was struggling in the mud. She was frightened she would break her wrist, so I gave her a hand over some tree roots and told her it was only a few miles to the next check point and not to give in. I felt for her, I am used to mud, I actually quite like mud, but those that don’t it must have been Heller than ‘Hells Gate thermal Park back in Rotorua.

Many more miles of negotiating tree roots, rocks and rutted pathways all coated in a thick creamy layer of browny red gunge, the perfect consistency of a Mississippi mud pie yet we were in New Zealand not Mississippi. Every step I would sink deeper into this velvety consistency, 1 step forward 2 steps back as it would cement into my shoes. The best way to deal with mud is to embrace it rather than to fight it. This was somewhat muddically magical, as my feet embraced the slippery ground in a magical muddy way. It was almost invigorating.

The mud will wash off but the memories will last a lifetime

I was at times clinging onto branches to hoist myself up to the slopes, as the rustic mudslides were not giving way to more runnable territory. Gumboots wouldn’t have even got through some of this mud without sulking. Steep embankments of bush and rock to either side often made it somewhat treacherous for those with the wrong shoes on.

My Altra Lone Peaks were holding up well, I’d thanked my mind I’d not gone for road shoes or what a lot of people had on, the Hoka Challenger ATR’s. The kind Kiwi weather had created an obstacle course that would put a Tougher Mudder to shame. At one point there was a section with a rope to help us down. I was, however, beginning to be vaguely aware of a niggle in my leg, but just tried to put it to one side and bounced across the trails my feet kissing this sacred land as best they could.

After a while, the sheer concentration to not end up horizontal began to take its toll. My leg was beginning to hurt and my hip was stinging but I tried to adjust my running style and squeeze those glutes to take the pressure off my calf muscles. I had a good speaking to my leg and told it to behave otherwise I would throw it in the mud.

The thick terracotta paste continued to bind into the soles of my trainers, mile after mile, sapping more energy from my now weary body. Relief came when a little stream emerged, having wet feet already I would now have clean wet feet scrapping off some of the sticky mud.

The most memorable days usually end with the dirtiest trainers

I was grateful to see the next aid station, possibly where I had left my drop bag, with an extra gel, head torch, and spare clothing. I decided I didn’t need the extra clothes, including socks, as I wasn’t about to try and peel off my very muddy engraved compression socks in order to just muddy up some others. So I just grabbed the GU gel and head torch, filled up with Tailwind, water and gulped down a cup of coke. With a handful of chips (crisps) and some nuts, I set off to further my adventures.

My feet began to hurt within minutes of leaving the aid station. Last time I did a long ‘wet run’ I got slits in my skin as the water penetrated through my shoes. The same was happening now, feeling like someone had sliced right through my feet. I was wondering if blisters were emerging too. But its all about just running through the pain and embracing what changes are happening with your body.

The steep climb out of aid station was not the sort of up you can ‘see’ so I don’t think it felt as bad as it would have looked on paper. With thick bush on either side of the mudways, it was more about negotiating the slime more than the climb itself. I began to play tag with a couple of other guys. I would over take them on the up bits scrambling up cavities which had formed some very pretty mudscapes, scrambling on all fours in many places wrenching my body up onto large boulders. I would trot away on the flat then the guys would race down sliding elegantly through the mud leaving me to pick through their footsteps far too cautiously.

Don’t just chase your dreams…
Run them down!

There was a good 10 miles or so from the previous aid station of Okataina to Miller Road so I was well prepared for the long stretch. Miller aid station was well heard before approaching it. With music blaring out and copious amounts of cheering and dancing. I took some coke and then filled one of my bottles up with more of the sugary pop. I’d had enough of tailwind, which was available at every aid station but my body was craving something a bit different by now.

My friend Mel (who if you remember works for the Met office but is not solely responsible for the rain and mud) introduced me to to a friend of hers called Paula a few days before the event. Paula had completed TUM in 2016 and 2017 and was a wealth of knowledge regarding the race. Unfortunately injury meant this year she was unable to take part, however she was there having a bit of a party with her friend a bride to be and other bridesmaids – literally. At 50 or so miles, the bride and bridesmaids were all jumping up and down cheering the runners through. What a wonderful sight to first see these awesomely crazy people all dressed in white, and secondly to see a somewhat familiar face. Paula gave me a big hug despite me having ran through 50 miles of mud and rain. That one little hug certainty boosted my confidence for the rest of the race.

Rain + Mud + a hug = Fun

The next aid station at Tikitapu came up sooner than I thought, only around 4 miles from the previous one. Despite it being so close I took advantage of its offerings as I knew I had another 10 or so miles before the final aid station. This was possibly the aid stations which had Pizza. I took a few little squares and wolfed it down. I’d never run on Pizza before but hell it was nice after 50 or so miles.

I was joined out of the aid station by another girl who I possibly think was a relay runner. She seemed much stronger than me at first but kept me going as we followed the lake pathways around Blue lake, which looked more like Grey Lake on a day like today. We were running on a little bit of road for a brief period of time. I blame the road as it was just after this point that my body began to subside into a small puddle of fatigue, slowly sinking into the grassy mudbanks next to the undesirable tarmac. I just had to keep those legs going ignoring any evil thoughts of more tarmac.

Focus on your goal.
Don’t look any direction but ahead!

Despite this little blip, I never hit the death grip of the ultra – that ‘I will never do this again’ syndrome. After a few jellies that I had saved from the previous aid station along with a peanut butter square sandwich (I’d learned now to ask which were marmite and which were Peanut Butter) I was mentally back in my happy place.

Physically maybe my body could have been better, the slits in my feet, the blisters and the hip now getting a little bit angrier as the day got longer. I was still overtaking many other runners and no one had overtaken me, so I knew deep down I was doing o.k. and the small amounts of pain were just niggles of nothingness.

Running taught me about life, that every little thing is broken down into one step at a time. That’s as easy and as hard as every task is. If you look ahead at how far the run is, maybe you’ll never begin. If you just start running there’s a great chance you’ll finish. So don’t over think it, love, just run. – Angela Abraham

Many runners fell victim of the somewhat monotony of the wide forest trails meandering around the Whakarewarewa Forest. My mind was just focused on keeping going, as I ultra shuffled past those that were now walking, those that seemed to be in pain, whether it be mentally or physically. It felt like a long stretch to the final aid station at Redwoods even though we’d definitely seen the last of the mud.

Redwoods, the final aid station kindly presented itself as just 5km from the finish line. I ran in happy, knowing I was almost home and I was about to complete this epic journey. I picked up a bit more water and some jellies and went on my way. I was now overtaking more runners, dusk was yet to fall and I was beginning to feel strong again as I meandered around more open woodland.

The unique aroma of rotten eggs had begun to engulf the air. Rotorua was definitely approaching. There is something quite potent about this sulphuric smell, and not in a disgusting way. The geothermal landscape would be the last of the amazing miles that would make up this amazing ultra journey.

Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.
~ William James

Words can not describe the last couple of miles of running through this volcanic playground. With steaming vents and small boiling pools of thermal activity crackling beneath my ultra worn feet, it brought home how awesome this adventure had been.

The warm and delightful heat was engulfing my feet, powering my body to keep running, I felt like I was getting stronger and stronger as I passed more and more people heading towards that finish line.

What a contrast of surroundings, in no other race could you run through single track bush, wide forest trails, crazyfied mud, witness beautiful awe-inspiring waterfalls, climb boulders, run around beautiful lakes and finally meander through live geothermal activity.

Apparently adrenaline is activating my sympathetic nervous system, making my heart beat faster, diverting blood to my muscles and away from my gut. Flight or fight right? Well all I know is that I love it. I’m addicted to it. It’s my drug of choice – katlehman34

I could finally see a glimpse of Government Gardens a mere mile or so away. I ran on through the easygoing footpaths and boardwalks around the geothermal landscape.

Before I could say ‘Rotten Eggs’ I turned the corner to the familiar building of the Polynesian spa, the finish was getting nearer and nearer. People began to clap me in.

It was at this moment where I got a bit emotional, a tear emerged in my eye just before I took the home straight through the centre path of Government Gardens. I gathered my thoughts together, put on a massive grin and powered my legs into what I would call an ultra sprint (the fastest your legs would carry you after 64 miles) feeling like an Olympic Champion. I crossed the finish line looking rather sheepish but beaming inside, as the microphone announced my name, all the way from South Yorkshire, Sheffield, the UK they said, – in that very order.

I was presented with a rather large awesome wooden medal engraved with ‘Tarawera Ultra-marathon 102km’. This medal would now be one of my favourites, it was about as far away as you can get from the average piece of bling.

Post race I bumped into another fellow Yorkshireman – all the way from sunny York. After having a brief chat and taking cheesy photos of each other at the finish signs, reality finally began to set in just as darkness was falling. It was time for some rest.

Despite what seems like the extraordinary nature of these events in the end ultra running gives us back our raw form, struggling and internal mental and physical strength.

The day after I found out that I had worked my way up the pack to clock a time of 13 hours and 20 minutes and had come in 13th female and 5th in my age category, which, when you are running in the same race as some of the top ultra runners in the world where winners of the Women’s race originated from the USA and Australia, then that unlucky 13 became my proud little lucky number.

Words can not describe how delighted I was to complete and finish this epic journey in one piece. I’d had such an incredible time in New Zealand already, and this, the Tarawera Ultra was the final jigsaw piece to complete my perfect picture postcard of my holiday. Such an awesome few weeks of my life. I have my wonderful Kiwi friend Mel to thank, along side a few of her friends who have supported a complete stranger to achieve this crazy happiness.

I prefer to be crazy and happy rather than normal and bitter

Photos of the event

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