Date: 6 February 2016
All photos by us, except the ones containing the TUM logo which are courtesy of Photos4sale and TUM.
Standing at the start line of the Tarawera ultra, it still hadn’t dawned on me what I was about to do. For some strange reason, the whole event hadn’t registered with me at all. Maybe it was a way for my mind to cope with the fact that we were going to run 60km, not having done the hard yards in training? Whatever the case might be, my mind chose not to make it a reality. And were it not for the excruciatingly sore muscles the day after, I still wouldn’t have registered what happened the day before.
2015 was for the most part not my year for running. After the Tarawera 100 in February 2015, we still had a fairly decent marathon a month after, but from there things started going south. A few stressful situations in life, a knackered immune system resulting in long and many episodes of illness and the unavoidable lack of training, knocked my fitness right back to just about zero. So by the time the Queenstown marathon rolled around at the end of November (for which we’d entered, paid travel and accommodation months in advance), I was just trying to make it through, sporting my worst marathon time ever by more than an hour.
Unfortunately, that meant that we had only two months between the Queenstown marathon and Tarawera 60 which is not nearly enough to recover from the marathon, train a little and taper to get into some sort of shape for the next. By then I had well and truly realised that the 100km event we had entered for was definitely not going to work out for me and so as to not forfeit our entry fees, we decided to scale down to the 60km. And at this point, it has to be said that you cannot think of doing an ultra without proper training. And by that I mean, running! Lots of running! You might scrape by at a marathon still, if there is a very lenient cut-off allowing you to walk most of the way, and you have perseverance like no tomorrow. But that takes the fun out of it altogether, so I rather try to pitch somewhat prepared.
The only thing we could do to up kilometres without risking injury too much was to walk massive amounts. So when we managed an 80km week, at least half of that distance was covered by walking. There’s no way I could have dived into 60, 70, or 80km weeks’ training by running all of it. And since I was 100% sure that we would probably walk the bulk of our 2016 Tarawera anyway, it turned out to be a good strategy.
As luck (bad luck!?) would have it, the Tarawera weekend ended up being a rainy one. It rained a fair amount the day and night before, and standing at the start in a misty drizzle, one should have known what was coming. This is a trail event after all.
At the start line early in the morning, dark and drizzly, the only noise was the buzzing of people – runners, their families and supporters seeing them off. No music or anything else. Just the pitter-patter of the falling rain and the humming of thousands of voices. I will never forget the two very apt songs that were played in 2015 before the start (“It’s a beautiful day”, and “I can’t do this alone”) which stuck with me to this day. Other entertainment included a Haka which must have been really special if you happened to be an elite or starting very near the front. The rest of us further down the field were blissfully unaware of what was going on in the front.
The countdown started and we were off at a trot. Slipping and sliding in the mud as we made our way through the Redwood Forest in the dark, up and down the hills, just following the trail of headlamps. It must have been a pretty sight from above. The course was changed slightly, adding two kilometres, spreading out the runners to ease up congestion in the first few kilometres. In all honesty, I don’t remember the course in such detail from last year (was too focused on getting through my first 100km!) so the changes didn’t make any difference to me, apart from the fact that it was a bit longer and less congested.
By the time we reached Blue Lake, about 11kms in, I was already sore and really worried that I might not make another 50 kilometres. Just before the first water point at about 16km, a gear check was enforced to make sure everybody had seam-sealed jackets – the only compulsory gear for this year’s event. Those who didn’t pass had to find and present jackets before they could continue. As we left the aid station, we briefly saw Peter who came to support a few runners from Palmy. It was great to see a familiar friendly face cheering us on!
Following the track you soon reach Lake Okareka and the little town of Okareka where the only bit of on-road running (about 6.5km) takes you back to the trails as you make your way up Pukepoto Hill followed by Whakapoungakau Hill. And although this might be the highest point on the course, it doesn’t mean that the rest is flat. Don’t let them fool you at race briefing by claiming this to be a flat and fast course. Yes, it is “easy” compared to the other races in the Ultra-Trail World Tour, but the hills are relentless. And there’s much more of them compared to last year! You see what happens when you’re not ready for an event? The same route feels infinitely more hilly and difficult if you haven’t trained properly. At this point, the rain had cleared and it started to get warm and we could even dry out a little. Things looked positive in that department.
Round about 40km I was seriously doubting myself again but decided to just soldier on, no matter how long it takes to get to the finish. By then I had also lost my appetite and could only stomach fresh fruit. Although I’ve had a bad encounter in the past with watermelon and has since thought myself to be slightly intolerant to it, I couldn’t face anything other than that and oranges. And, of course, potato crisps – who can resist potato in any form or shape?! Gerry forced a breakfast log down my throat and I managed to take coke and ginger ale at the aid stations. It was also here that I took a spoon full of Nutella. I’ve never “run” on any of these (apart from maybe the odd slice of orange, but I certainly cannot recall when or where), but since one can hardly call what I was doing, running, I figured it should be okey.
Not sure if it was the Nutella or just normal progression of your body and brain’s workings during an ultra, but I got a second wind and could jog a few more kilometres. By then the rain starting coming down quite heavily and soon we were completely soaked again. We just trotted along, trying to get to the finish. Maybe it was exhaustion or maybe the temperature had dropped, but I was cooling down seriously. And by the time we finished, I was really shivering and half hypothermic. Luckily we made it through what felt like an eternity and I was just very happy to be done with it.
The event is for the most part well organised from a participant point of view. The water points were well stocked with a wide variety of eats and drinks. The volunteers at the water points were fantastic! And for runners, this is, after all, the most important part. And all the trappings (as one local hero called it on stage at the prize-giving) and trimmings (expo, prize-giving, movie-premiere, event branded clothing and other paraphernalia) were in place. It remains great to see and hear a little bit about/from the elite athletes at the Q&A – always a highlight for me.
Regardless of the fact that the whole trail was one massive mudslide, especially for us back-of-the-packers having to follow the trampled path of 1000 runners, it was still great to be out there. To run-walk 12+ hours in drizzle and rain (for the most part) was quite an experience. The last two hours was really cold for me, being drenched in the second round of rain, and I cooled down too much to heat up by myself again. Seam-sealed or not, rain jackets are not warm. And they don’t keep you dry, because if the rain doesn’t get you, your own sweat will make sure your are soaked to the bone despite the so-called wicking properties of these garments. Presumably (in my opinion) rain jackets are primarily meant to keep out the wind, especially when you are wet, so they definitely have great merit. But to make seam-sealed jackets compulsory at a low altitude race, predominantly in forested areas, seem questionable. None the less, it was handy. Personally, I would have been better off with my very thin down jacket, as that would have been cosy even when wet. It’s light weight (lighter than my seam-seeled jacket) and would also keep the wind out.
One big downer (which in my humble opinion feels like a lack of commitment from the organisers) is the fact that the 60km event is a point-to-point, but absolutely no plans are in place to get you back to the start or even to the finish of the race. It’s insane to expect runners to find their own way home when the last thing you want to stress about after having run 60km, is travel arrangements. Why do you organise an event and make such an important aspect the participants’ problem? I can appreciate the argument that the roads are too narrow for buses, but surely minivans can manoeuvre there? Even tractors with trailers! I would happily walk a kilometre or two to a pick-up point if I knew there’s organised transport waiting.
Needless to say, I was extremely annoyed having to stand in the rain for what felt like an eternity, freezing my butt off, trying to find a lift to somewhere (anywhere!) when most people coming past tried to rather avoid or ignore our sorry bunch under the tree. And who could blame anyone for not being keen to give soaking wet people, covered in mud, a lift in their car? Even though everybody standing there were clearly peeved with the situation, nobody dared complain or question the rationale behind this oversight. Dare to utter a complaint, and you run the risk of being told off by one of the event’s fervent followers (a group who’s unfaltering, passionate defence of the race and it’s organisation borders on bullying). After all, you should just toughen up. Grin and bear it – you knew what you let yourself in for when you entered.
I do apologise to Tim and Paul for this rant (I know I will be ridiculed for this!), but you would understand what I’m talking about if it was you standing in the rain, halfway hypothermic, dirty as, and too embarrassed to impose on other people for a ride. You wouldn’t want to get into someone’s car covered in mud, so why do you expect your participants to do so??
I am (embarrassingly) forever grateful for the guy who sacrificed his vehicle to give us a lift to Kawerau, and to Steph and Dion for yet again allowing our filthy asses into their ute to take us back to Rotorua. We owe you.