Tarawera Ultramarathon 2013 Race Report

“I really didn’t want to see that” I muttered to myself, referring to the colour of my urine splashing into the bushes on the side of the Western Okataina Walkway; it looked like washed out Coca-Cola. Here I was at the 2013 Tarawera Ultramarathon, just a couple of kilometres past the previous aid station and with about 15km to go. The thought of returning to Okataina popped into my head, very briefly. But no, I was here to run 100km and going back and DNFing just wasn’t going to happen. Little did I know that the worst of the run was still ahead of me and I would soon be in my own personal hell, walking up the hill that never seemed to end…

Before I continue with my descent into hell, I’ll take a look at my training and the first 85kms of the race. Apologies for this very long read, but I know some people do appreciate all the nitty gritty details 🙂

The Tarawera Ultra

For those of you who don’t know anything about this event, it’s normally a point to point run starting in the Redwoods in Rotorua and finishing at Tarawera Falls (60K) and Kawerau (85K and 100K). It goes around/along Blue Lake, Lake Okareka, Lake Okataina, Lake Tarawera and then on mostly gravel forest roads to Kawerau.

Due to extreme fire risk this year, the “fire course” had to be used which meant the 60K runners turned around at Humphries Bay and finished at Okataina, and the 85K and 100K runners turned around at Tarawera Falls. The 85K runners then finished at Okataina and the 100K runners at Okareka.

The fire course is much tougher than the regular course with the hardest and most technical section of the race having to be run twice. And to top it off, the 100K runners had to run back over the highest section to get to the finish.

Training and expectations

I ran the 85K in 2012 and was stepping up to the 100K for 2013. I started training earlier than last time and was trying to hit 100km per week, which I achieved several times.

I had planned to potentially run some or all of the Hillary Trail as I done the year before, but unfortunately due to work overload I didn’t manage to do get out into the Waitakeres until a couple of weeks before when I ran from Huia to Piha and back with a friend.

It was a very hilly 30km that took us almost 9 hours due to my friend suffering from a sore achilles. Not a very long distance run, but about 60 to 70% of the time I expected to run Tarawera in, so some good time on feet, if a little slow. I also ran a few high 30kms and low 40kms runs so there was some amount of longer runs in the mix.

Going into the event, I really didn’t feel adequately prepared for it, but I knew that I would be able to finish it, no matter what it took. A few days out from race day it was announced that we would be using the fire course, meaning it would take me a lot longer than I had originally anticipated. I knew it would be tougher and hillier at the end, and taking this and my race splits from last year into account, I figured I’d finish in around 14 to 15 hours.

Before the race

I didn’t go to sleep until 11:45pm the night before. We had 3 alarms set for 5:30am for the race start at 6:30am; yes I know I didn’t allow much time but I can usually get ready pretty quickly in the morning. In the end, I woke up at 4:45am and got up at 5:00am. I was feeling tired, which is to be expected when getting up early after only 5 hours sleep, but I’d been tired for days anyway due to the work overload mentioned earlier.

My gear laid out, all ready for the morning

The plan

The plan was to walk pretty much anything even slightly resembling uphill, eat as much savoury food as I could at the aid stations, and eat the sweet stuff (gels and lollies) between aid stations. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to be unable to eat solid food after about 40kms, and I hate gels (I find them difficult to consume after 5 or 6), which proved to be true once again at this event.

The first 74kms, and all is well

The race started at 6:30am. I was pretty much right at the back of the pack; I had no intention of going out too fast when it’s going to be such a long day! There are stairs after only a few hundred metres which cause quite a lot of congestion but I didn’t mind the slow down, and there was some fun and friendly banter as we climbed. I think I ran the first couple of kilometres about 4 minutes slower than last year.

After climbing up and out of the Redwoods

After we came up and over that first section, I started to pass people and would continue to do so until about the 80km mark (and then no one passed me for about another 10kms).

I ate bacon and egg pie at Blue Lake, Okareka and Okataina and kept to my schedule of a gel every 45 minutes and lollies inbetween aid stations. The plan came unstuck as we approached Okataina and I decided to skip a gel; I only had one or two gels after Okataina and no more lollies. The only solid food I ate after Okataina was fruit, but unfortunately I didn’t eat enough of it.

Running out from Okataina (37kms) to Tarawera Falls (61km) and back to Humphries Bay (74km) was probably the highlight of the race for me. I was running strong and fast, felt really good, and saw a lot of my friends. Some I ran with for a bit, others I saw coming back from the Falls.

In my happy place, enjoying the run

The only hiccup at this stage was getting a bee sting somewhere between Humphries Bay and The Outlet. I thought I’d caught some hook weed but was surprised how much it hurt and was even more surprised when I looked down and saw a bee sticking out of my leg! I pulled it out and my friend Kate happened to catch up to me soon after; she gave me some anti-histamines to help with it and off I went. At the aid station they washed it off with vinegar and I put a plaster on it. It’s still red and itchy where I was stung as I write this 6 days later…

Humphries Bay to Okataina

Humphries Bay (74km) to Okataina (85km) is another story. I was getting pretty tired by now and my lack of training was beginning to show. If we had been on the original course I really don’t think I would have had a problem. But we were now running back through the very technical, very rooty trail that we’d already covered on the Eastern Okataina Walkway.

I kept banging my right foot (and right big toe) on roots and rocks and almost fell over several times. I guess I was tired and not lifting my feet enough, and eventually I fell over a root, my handheld bottle flew through the air and rolled down a slope, my leg cramped up and I let out some pretty choice words!

I was sitting across the track, straightening my leg up as much as possible to stop the cramp, and dreading having to clamber down the slope to get my bottle. I managed to get it without cramping up and continued on my way, but I ran a lot slower whenever there was a very rocky rooty section.

I entered the dark zone at some point after this for a bit. It wasn’t yet the “why am I doing this, I’ll never do it again” type of thing but enough to make me walk for a bit, but eventually I got over it and found myself at Okataina. I could see where the 60K/85K runners finished but there was no way I was going over there.

Some more fruit, hello to some friends (to tell them I’m knackered), and a bit of humming and hahing about whether or not I should grab a slice of pizza and I was on my way again. The cheers and applause from the crowd soon wore off as I realised I couldn’t eat the pizza, spat out what was in my mouth and threw the rest away.

The last 17kms, my own personal hell

So there I was, pissing a nasty shade of urine into the bushes which indicated that I was seriously dehydrated, wondering if perhaps I should go back. For about a second. And then on again. There is no way back.

Then it started to get really steep and I started to walk, after which there was very little running. At one point I could see a huge cut off tree trunk which I figured I’d walk to, sit on and have a rest. It was while resting here that another runner walked up the hill and asked how it was going. He stopped to talk and we continued up the hill together but he was soon off running and I simply couldn’t.

Between here and the end I was passed by around about a dozen other runners and their pacers, and stopped to sit down probably another 3 or 4 times, but that didn’t bother me.

I had measured the uphill out from Okareka on the way out to be about 7kms, so I figured I had about 7kms of blissful downhill to the finish. But unfortunately in the carefree early stages of the race, what seemed like entirely uphill was really undulating track with a predominant uphill theme.

And so here I was, 95kms into a trail run, expecting the downhill to start some time soon. And it never really did. The awful thing is, it kept pushing out how far I had to run, based on what my GPS watch was telling me. Shit! I have to run 105km? 106km? 107km?

There is no way to express the relief I felt when a man and his daughter came walking towards me with their headlamps on as I neared the end of the forest. I asked him how far it was to the Millar Rd aid station and he reckoned about 600 metres. I know that people in general are crap with measuring distances but it correlated with my GPS watch about where I thought I should be, so I knew there was about 1km to go to the aid station.

But it took a long time coming. Eventually I could hear music and see a trail of glow sticks: Millar Rd was nigh.

I popped out of the bush to find another runner in much worse shape than I was, lying on the ground with his pacer next to him. The finish was only 3kms away. I knew I needed some electrolytes so drank some Heed (which I can’t stand but had to have) and some ginger beer. The aid station volunteers were great and I joked with them about having some beers sent up to them. Then on again.

From Millar Rd it really is almost entirely downhill, but it’s still 3km, on top of 99km and I felt like crap. All I wanted was for this to be over. I think I ran about half of it but that was mostly at the start.

I wished I could still run like this when Simon and Mal passed.

I was passed by another couple of runners including Mal Law with his pacer Simon Clendon who called out “Join the train toot toot” as they ran past.I would have loved to have joined them but at this stage I was walking and then running for maybe a hundred metres and then walking again. (I highly recommend Simon for support/pacing by the way, if you know him. I had asked if he would run with me but Mal had already snapped him up.)

When? When is Okareka? Oh whoops I’m walking and there are all the glow sticks. Better get running. So I ran the last hundred metres, crossed the finish line and was then really confused when one of the race people shook my hand, put the finishers medal around my neck and then bent down to take my timing chip off. I guess that’s what running 102km, the last 20 of which you’re dehydrated does to you! All I really wanted now was my wife Jane.

Jane made her way over. I grabbed her in a huge hug and cried tears of relief that it was finally over.

The dark places

I went to many deep and dark places in the 90s as I ran up the hill that never seemed to end. “I’m not going to run any more events this year.” “I’ll take a couple of months off running.” “I’m not going to run the Wild Turkey Marathon in three weeks.” As I reflect on this now, interestingly there were no “I’m not running an ultra again” thoughts. Just that I wouldn’t be running again in any great hurry.

I really enjoyed at least 75% of my run. I did not enjoy the last 17km*. But if I had to go back to Saturday and do it all again I would. I set out with a goal to run my first 100km and doing any less was not an option. If I entered the 100km next year and they had to do the fire course again, maybe I’d drop down to the 85km. Maybe. Noting of course that I now have had a few days reflection and my training might be different next year.

(* With the exception of seeing glow worms when I didn’t expect to see them, the cute little possum on the side of the track that didn’t know what the **** was going on with all these crazy trail runners going past, and all those cool rustles going on in the bush as the nocturnal animals woke up for their “day”. OK, so maybe I did enjoy it a bit. In hindsight.)

So now what?

Paul Charteris, the race director, interviewed me at the finish line and the last question he asked was if I’m now addicted to ultrarunning. “Ask me in a couple of weeks” was the answer. It’s 6 days later and the answer is “Hell yes”. I want to go out and run it again; I don’t want to have to wait another year!

Having said that, I think somewhere around 60km to 75km is “my distance” due to my issues with taking in nutrition. I do need to experiment with other foods (or make sure I eat a lot more fruit) and energy/electrolyte drinks but it’s a tough one because it’s only after about 40kms that I start to have issues, so not something easy to train for.

Stats and stuff

Finishing time: 14:52:49
Official distance: 102.1km

Split Name Race Time Leg Time Split Position Distance Done Pace km/hr
Leg 1 – Okareka 02:11:13 02:11:13 69 19.5 8.9
Leg 2 – Okataina 04:45:49 02:34:35 78 37.0 6.8
Leg 3 – Tarawera Outlet 1 07:17:23 02:31:34 45 55.5 7.3
Leg 4 – Tarawera Outlet 2 08:41:24 01:24:01 27 66.1 7.6
Leg 5 – Okataina 2 11:14:20 02:32:55 26 84.6 7.3
Leg 6 – Okareka 2 14:52:49 03:38:29 82 102.1 4.8

Nutrition

Food consumed directly before the race:

2 bowls of museli with milk
1 banana

Food consumed during the race:

7 gels
5 sachets of Vitasport (in 3 litres of water)
1 to 2 litres more water
10 cups of Coke
8 cups of ginger beer
1/2 cup of heed
3 or 4 handfuls of chips
3 slices of bacon and egg pie
6 slices of watermelon
3 orange segments
14 lollies
1.5 packs of Power Bar Energy Shots

Topping up the water bottles at Okareka.
Off to the left (out of picture) is a wide range of goodies.

Assuming I have the above roughly correct, I consumed around 4000 to 4500 calories and burnt around 6500 to 7500 calories. If I remember correctly, the body stores about 2000 calories so I needed to consume at least another 1000 calories to avoid hitting the wall as I did in the 80s (before Okataina) and 90s (after Okataina).

Gear

I ran in three of my ubiquitous red Running Calendar shirts, changing into fresh shirts at Okataina (37km) and Humphries Bay (74km). I hadn’t done that before in a race and it was really nice putting on a fresh dry shirt each time. Oh and they’re Adidas Auckland Marathon shirts from 2009.

My shorts were Salomon S-LAB Twin Skins with the nifty pouches built into them at the front and back; I kept lollies, gels, asthma inhaler, plasters, toilet paper, hand sanitiser and pain killers in those pouches.

Coming into Okataina the first time.
Handheld in one hand, belt with bottle on at the back.

I had a handheld Nathan bottle which I carried for the entire race; it has a zip pouch built into it which I kept my Power Bar Energy Shots in. From Okareka to Okataina I wore a bottle belt carrying a secondary bottle: it was too far between aid stations to rely on one bottle.

On my feet I wore Injinji toe socks and Inov-8 Roclite 315s. After the battering I’d been getting on my toes I added some very thin Drymax socks over the top of the Injinjis just to add a little more padding at Humphries Bay (74km).

My race number was on a Fuel Belt race number holder. It’s quite nifty with little loops to hold gels as well. I use it for gels when I run road marathons but didn’t have anything in it for this run. My race number was #1, which I highly recommend if you can get it 🙂 It brought a smile to a lot of people’s face and I was frequently asked how I got it.

From Okataina (85km) I had a Kathmandu headlamp. I didn’t need it for an about or so after leaving Okataina; it was light for a while and then got dark very quickly.

Despite being very skinny, I have started to chafe between the thighs in this summer’s heat. I was recommended Lanacane by a friend and it’s the most amazing stuff; no chafing at all. I put another coating on half way around just to make sure! It’s available from some pharmacies.

And finally, I discovered my new ultra distance best friend: Imodium. I don’t think I need to say any more about that one.

Thanks to Paul and the volunteers

My thanks go out to Paul for creating such an amazing event and for the volunteers who marshall, man the aid stations, look after the gear bags and so on. We could not run in this event if it were not for you.

And yes, I’ll be back next year to run the hundred again!