So I found myself back at the Tarawera Ultra second year in a row tackling the big one (100km, 2800 + m climb). Finishing felt like much more of a certainty this year. Last year had taught me the seemingly impossible was actually quite doable with a bit of training, some mental fortitude and a small dose of madness.
Training as usual felt underdone, however on inspection I had in fact done the same kms Dec and Jan as I had done in the previous year. The big training run was the 60 km Kepler in early December which was a hard but successful (and stunningly beautiful) run for me. Read race report here. I had done my best to take Mikes advice and target hills for those last couple of months. A hill highlight was 230 flights of stairs then a 20 km run in the flat lands of Houston Texas, sweating it out in an ugly concrete stairwell alone was the type of training I knew would help me when going got tough at Tarawera. I also found time for a 44 km training run through the Redwoods and Okataina walkway out to Lake Rotoiti in early January.
I had not given too much mental thought to the race prior to the few days before but I felt my objectives were reasonably clear:
- As always I wanted to enjoy and relish in the goodness of race day through epic country with good mates.
- Beat last years time (14:35) which I knew would be a success in itself with the conditions and slightly longer course this year – and had plugged in a total time of 13:43 into Rons race calculator (with no fade factor!) for a bit of a dream run.
- Lastly, if the pleasure of a racing challenge with first-time Tarawera speedster and fellow MECer Evan Atlkinson unfolded over the day, I would race as a gentleman but I also determined I would beat him if at all possible. He was untested over the 100 km format, very keen to run his own race, but I had no doubt in his strength and his determination should we find ourselves in a similar position late in the race. I relished in the thought of a serious battle unfolding and knew for me there was nothing better than a competitive MEC brother breathing down my neck to push me to my limit.
AND HOW IT UNFOLDED
I almost missed the start after leaving my timing chip at home but some illegal speeding by my father in law in the dash home allowed me to reach the start line alongside my MEC bros with literally less than a minute to spare. School-boy error! I had discussed the night before starting out with Evan, I always enjoy running with others and we thought as long as we were both comfortable with the pace we would run together and see what unfolded. Brent ran with us in an-uncharacteristically restrained fashion and we settled in.
I always enjoy the first third of an ultra trail race. Running with my mates, not feeling any pain, generally just overwhelming joy and good vibes and stoked to be in soaking up the scenery. I noticed Evan and I were quick on the walking up hills, (thanks Mike for the training advice). As forecast, conditions were wet, warm but not overly so, I felt very comfortable. It was great to run with Evan and the kms were falling easily. As I do most of my training runs solo I always love the crowds and support of a race, in particular seeing the family at Blue Lake and Okareka was such a lift.
We rolled into Okataina after about 5 hours (approx. 39 km) within a couple of minutes of Rons super calculator. I was conscious of the large amounts of time I had spent at aid stations last year and my plan was to refuel quickly and keep going this time around. Evan and I set out together. As expected the leg from Okataina to Tarawera Outlet was hard. I am very slow on muddy technical and being an Acky rock hopper Evan pretty quickly pulled away from me. I always struggle with the middle section of an ultra – feeling gassed but still knowing I have 50 km to run is hard. I arrived into Humphries bay tired with a rock in my shoe and morale a bit down. Evan was a couple of minutes ahead and about to leave the station and had a rugged but brave looking Brent by his side.
I pushed on trying my very best to keep up. I knew from experience it doesn’t matter how bad it feels, the good times will come again before too long. The field was now spread wide and every time I saw someone through the trees I pushed on excitedly to find it wasn’t Evan but he had picked off someone else out of the field. In this section I ran into Brent. He was in a bad way and looked sick as a dog, was nauseous and cramping up. Any semi normal ultra runner would be electing to bow out at a very respectable 60 km but I knew Brent would run until he was scraped up off the dirt. I left him to it, wished him well and was quietly thankful that my struggles were incomparable.
I managed to keep Evan in my grasp and arrived at Tarawera Falls not far behind him. We both put on fresh shoes and I was stoked to be dropping my sodden trail shoes that had given me large blisters. The Falls is a massive mental turning point for me. A big crowd, the technical trail is over, only an easy 40 km to go (!) and I knew in only 10 km at the 70 km mark I would have a pacer join me. I left the Falls with a spring in my step and felt it was time to capitalize on the good mental headspace.
Not too far out of the Falls Evan slowed for a brief walk and I kept my slow jog on. I didn’t look back but thought with my pace I would start to pull away. A few minutes later I heard Evan yell out Hi from behind. He wouldn’t let me go. Not long later he slowed again and I was feeling ok and began picking up my pace. I knew to shake him properly would require a sustained effort at a higher tempo for sometime, and that is exactly what I did. I picked up the pace and ran hard and did not turn around to look for a couple of kms until I was pretty sure he was gone.
I arrived after a quick few kms into Titoki (72 km) feeling strong and was joined by Dad who was going to be my support runner for 20 km. We set off for Awaroa and it was great running with the old man. He told all the same yarns as last year, good times. I maintained my pace and slowly found myself picking off people. The notorious loop of despair felt surprisingly doable and we pressed on. I did not doubt for a moment that Evan would be pushing it behind me and I did not let up the pace, half expecting him to come around the corner anytime. I was not wrong either, Evan was running a great race and at times closing my lead on him, particularly from Awaroa inbound. (check out Strava Flybys!)
I knew it was only a few clicks until finish line escasty and I was pumped. I could see all going well I might beat my 13:43 time on Rons race calculator and picked up the pace. Dad was going to stop after 20 km at Fishermans Bridge (92 km) but was feeling strong and decided to press on the finish. He was doing awesome for an old chap who hadn’t trained but he stopped briefly for a pee and said he would catch up. By this stage I had a good dose of finish line fervor and was off, despite his best efforts Dad did never did catch up. I was in my happy place when I crossed the line in 13:27:09 and I cheered Dad as he ran solo down the chute a couple of minutes behind. Evan arrived a few moments later in fine form.
So how did it go? The Tarawera dished up the beauty and good vibes as always. I was on the buzz all week afterwards! I have never felt so hydrated in an Ultra and the nutrition plan went really well (Gels every 45 min and grab solid food every aid station). I sustained no injuries and recovery was quick.
In terms of a race I was very happy with my time and surprised how well it went. It was awesome to having such a great sparing partner in Evan, I certainly wouldn’t have crossed the line at 13:27 without his morale support and competition to drive me on. Full credit to Evan for his first 100 km race, with no pacer and under the tough conditions his race was exceptional. Also deserving a mention was Brent who showed unbelievable levels of persistence to run out the race in the state he was. Dad and Elysia were amazing support as always and I couldn’t have had the race I had without them. Thanks to Mike and co for the training and camradarie….I told Mike this is my last ultra for an undetermined time – Although I’m already missing it so watch this space 🙂