Race Reports

Tarawera Ultra, New Zealand

It is very exciting for me that in early 2012, while living in New Zealand, I have revived my marathon training.  As I was getting my mileage back up to a good base, a new running friend mentioned to me about a race he was getting ready for, an 85km trail run called the Tarawera Ultra.

Initially, I thought that it would be far too soon to do anything like that, and it would be best to focus on the marathon, but as I looked over the race website, I was lured in.  My training was going really well and it would be a great test to see where I was at with my fitness level.  I signed up and started to get my head ready for the distance. 

Two and a half weeks before the race, I developed Achilles tendonitis, which forced me to stop running completely for more about eight days, and then I could only run a fraction of my mileage once I got back on the roads.  Within days of the race, I was filled with doubt, as to how well my Achilles would hold up.  I figured since I was already signed up, and committed to the trip, I should at least try to start and if it gets worked up, I would just have to DNF. 

I spent the days leading up to the race resting.  On Friday afternoon, Mark and I drove down to Rotorua, just in time to pick up our race kits at the local Holiday Inn.  We received a pair of Injiji socks and a pretty sweet Icebreaker race t-shirt with our entry.  I also stocked up on gels, which are a little harder to come by here in NZ.

While checking out a couple of the vendors at the small expo, I had the pleasure to meet Anton Krupicka, one of the top ultrarunners from the USA.  He was supposed to be running in the 100k category, but due to nagging injuries, he would be on a relay team instead. 

After the expo, Mark and I met with Chloe and her parents to go over our race day plans.  Mark, Chloe and I had planned to run the entire race together, and Chloe’s parents would be our support crew, meeting us at most of the aid stations.  Even though they were counting on me for advice and my experience, I was quite nervous myself.  My plan was to try and keep things as simple as possible and take things as they come. 

Mark grabbed some take-out pasta from Hell Pizza on our way back to our motel, and we prepared the last of our gear and food before calling it a night. 

Wake up was an early 5am, but we had both had a pretty good sleep.  We had a light breakfast with some tea.  I had half a bottle of V-energy drink to get me going.  The other half I had kept in my food/gear bag, saving it for late in the race when I would need a boost. 

We were picked up around 6am and we drove all together to the Start line at the Redwoods Forest, just on the outskirts of Rotorua.  One of the fun things about running in Rotorua is that you can always just blame the odour around you on the geothermal activity. 

As we waited for the race to start, it was still dark and a little chilly.  We had to have headlamps for the beginning, but once we were out from under the trees, things were brightening up fairly quickly.  We started off all right, just keeping somewhere in the middle of the pack.  There was a fair bit of climbing early on, so we made sure not to over do it.  Most of the time, we were stuck behind others anyways, so it was a good way to get warmed up. 

Once we started to spread out a bit, we picked up our pace.  The course was relatively flat for the next 10k or so.  I was quite anxious to see what we were in for around Blue Lake, where we were told there would be a guarantee of having to go through some water.  About 200m after the first aid station (which we pretty well cruised right through), we were faced with about 10m of trail completely underwater.  We got almost knee deep in some places.  There was no shortage of silt and stones in my shoes.  We had to go through about two or three more areas that were flooded before the trail made it to the other side of the lake where there was a road we could run along.  It was actually quite refreshing on the feet.  I told the others to just consider it a free exfoliation scrub for their feet.  There was another aid station only a few kilometers further up the road.

The first real aid station stop went really well.  I cleaned out my shoes, changed my socks and stocked up my pockets with gels and more BrianBars.  We had a bit of a climb to the next station, but it was mostly on sealed road.  I enjoyed the break from the trails, because I knew we would be seeing a lot more technical stuff later on. 

We seemed to reach the next aid station pretty quick, despite a fair bit of walking up the steeper parts of the road.  We filled up with calories and headed back into the woods for the main elevation gain and longest stretch between aid on the course.  We spent a long time climbing, barreling down the hills, and then climbing up even higher.  There was a lot of walking, which helped keep the legs feeling fresh even though we were more than 4 hours in. 

The last few kilometers of this section drops all the way back down to the lake, so we gained some time back there.  The next aid station was a big one and so we took our time.  Chloe changed her shoes, and Mark and I ate as much as we could.  I really enjoyed the ham sandwiches he prepared.  I filled up my CamelBak and also had some watermelon.  Once Chloe was back on her feet, we took off. 

We made some friends on the next section.  One girl, whom we ended up just calling “Navy” was quite friendly and looked strong.  She works on a submarine for the Australian Forces, and was able to take some time off to come to NZ for the race. 

We also had a guy tagging along behind us who was getting a little bit down on himself.  He had trained for a different 45k race, which was cancelled the week before and decided to enter the 85k at the last moment.  He was having doubts and didn’t know if he could pull through. 

It was around this time that I was starting to feel a bit of cramping in my thighs and my ankle was a little sore.  I was starting to think about whether I would stop at the 60km Finish line or if I could continue with Mark and Chloe.  I kept most of this to myself, and instead, shared my experience with this other guy, assuring him that there’s always going to be low moments. 

I told him that as long as he can keep eating and drinking, he’ll get a second wind.  We were in the toughest part of the course, so by 55k, most of the climbing and technical trail would be behind us.  

We faced one more section of flooded trail, which we couldn’t avoid, so the last few kilometers to the next checkpoint were done with soaked feet.  When we made it to the aid station, Chloe’s parents told us about the flat tire they had to change on the car, while I changed my socks and piled up on more food and water. 

The next section of trail was quite beautiful, complete with lakes, waterfalls and eventually the river, which we would be following along towards the finish line. 

First, we had to pass the 60km Finish line, where I was both happy and a little burdened to find that I was starting to feel better.  I owed it to myself to continue with the 85k plan and run with Mark and Chloe to the finish of what we started. 

After downing a couple slices of egg and bacon pie, we started off on the next section.  Most of it was on gravel forest roads, which I wasn’t complaining about.  We had to climb a fair bit for the first few kilometers before finally reaching our max elevation until the finish.  The last 20k would be mostly downhill, which was better than up, but each step still hurt.

Chloe had a pair of shoes waiting at the next station, so once she saw it down the road, she sped up, as Mark and I struggled to keep up behind her.  This stop was the point where we could decide to upgrade to the 100k and do an extra loop or continue on the 85km route.  I don’t think any of us gave it much thought.  I was pleased to eat some Hawaiian pizza and carry on to the 85k course.   

A few kilometers later, a mountain biker approached us on the trail, and we moved over as a courtesy.  Once she passed us, she said it was us that she was looking for.  She said that it was only about 10-15 minutes to the next station and that our pacers were waiting for us. 

We were all a little confused about why she was looking for us, but it encouraged us to make it to the next station.  Chloe had been struggling since her surge before the shoe change and Mark needed all the encouragement he could get at this point. 

Sure enough, once we arrived at the Fisherman’s Bridge station, the 73k mark, some of Mark’s friends, from the Waiuku Multisport group, were there to pace us in to the finish.  I chugged my energy drink and gobbled up some more pizza.  I was pumped and ready to be finishing this thing off!!!    

We had some fresh conversations and new energy with our personal pacers along side us.  They were awesome, helping us keep motivated and moving.  I was actually starting to feel a bit of a second wind, and was trying to pump up the others so that we could pull it in strong to the finish.  We continued shuffling along, steadily. 

Once we arrived at the final aid station, with only 3k left, it was 11:02’ into the race.  I told Chloe and Mark that we could finish this thing in the next 28 minutes.  They did not seem convinced.  We pushed on.

With words of encouragement steady and the sights of town coming closer into view, it became clear that we would be finishing well ahead of 11:30’.  As we shuffled through the park and saw the bright orange cones around the corner, we picked it up for a strong finish!!!!  11:20’ was our final time for the 83.7km. 

It was nice to see that they were serving free beer for the finishers.  I had been looking forward to a St. Paddy’s day beer for most of the day.  The damage to my feet was quite reasonable.  I only had a couple blisters, and one black toenail.  Considering the amount of water we went through, I was fairly pleased. 

I changed into some warm dry clothes as we waited for a few of the others we knew to come in.  I was able to chat with Anton a little bit more, as well as the guy that wanted to drop out around the 45k point.  He finished the 85k, not long after we came through.  Once the sun went down and it started to get cold, we decided to make our way back to Rotorua. 

All three of us were starting to cease up after the long car ride.  We ordered in some Indian food and had a nice little post race visit at Chloe’s motel room.  By the time we got back to our motel, both Mark and I were pretty well fast asleep. 

The next morning, we all met again before going to the post-race breakfast at a local restaurant, where they would also be giving out awards.  It was cool to see all the amazing runners who placed in the event, which included a Canadian girl, taking 1st in the 100k.

The first couple days after the race, my legs are fairly totaled, but I hope to get in a couple 4k runs in this week to get me back on track for my marathon training.  Yoga seems to help a fair bit, although I have to go really slow and mindfully, so as not to fall over.  I am so happy that I decided to take on this challenge.  It’s nice to know my body can still do it. 

© Brian Groot 2020