Funny how life ran away with us since our delightful trip to New Zealand this past February. Really, and how! Not a day goes by that the Hubs and I don’t express our gratitude that we INDEED were able to experience and fully enjoy the trip in February, still unhindered by travel restrictions, let alone being locked down to our own properties. Well, one thing is sure, our level of appreciation for every single travel memory rose by quite a few notches. And not in the least for having been part of the 2020 Tarawera Ultra-marathon.
First, The Conclusion
To anyone who’s decision on doing Tarawera depends on other runners’ experience, I’ll say this. I am not one to perpetually run the same races. There are too many races and beautiful places out there waiting to be discovered on foot. The Otter African Trail Run on the Garden Route in South Africa is one exception. I have run it three times and would gladly do it again any day. And then there is Tarawera, which, should we muster up the courage take on a 9-plus-17 hour back-to-back flight, I would do again (and again) in heartbeat. So go on and hit the ENTER button!
The Tarawera 50K ticked all the boxes in terms of setting, scenery and culture. Add to that the impeccable organisation from race entry to registration, awesome aid stations and a lovely finish-line and you have one for the books.
Off to a Lovely Start
When we arrived at the race start venue at Te Puia, the lawns were fresh and still damp after a short rain shower the night before. A moody, overcast sky increased the drama and suspense of what the day ahead had in store for us.
Tarawera was hopefully going to be my sixth continent trail marathon, so butterflies prevailed en masse. Having been away from home (and our good old reliable training hills) for the entire training period, I wasn’t too sure what to expect from the legs.
Having the hubs and the boys there helped to calm the nerves while I pecked at a banana, marveling at the diversity of nationalities among the athlete conglomeration. Tarawera is an international favourite, and big names in the trail community can be spotted at the race expo.
That Haka, Though!
Now, if you ever heard or read anything about Tarawera, someone would have mentioned the race start. Today I am here to tell you that, no matter what a big rugby fan you are or how many times you have had goosebumps watching the All Blacks perform their haka, you have not lived until you had experienced a live Maori haka at the start of a race. The rawness of the passion portrayed on their faces and in their perfectly sync’d warrior-type dance moves was soul-stirring and tear-jerking, to say the least.
Although it originated as a war dance, the haka later took up different meanings. In early times the haka was performed to induce fear and to encourage the members of their own tribe. In modern times it is said that the haka may be performed in a display of respect and solidarity towards special guests. Source.
The well known “Ka Mate” haka, which was also performed at the 2020 Tarawera Ultra 50k race start, is said to have been written by Te Rauparaha as a celebration of life triumphing over death. After emerging from a dark pit where he took refuge to avoid sure death by enemy tribes Te Rauparaha wrote:
“Ka mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!”
(I might die! I might die! I may live! I may live!)
And the last line:
“Ā, upane, ka upane, whiti te ra! Hi!”
(A step upward, another… the Sun shines! Rise!)
A very apt a message before an ultra trail, I would say (this haka can also be performed at weddings apparently … no comment!) And perhaps appreciably befitting in the current trying times, no?
To Puarenga – 13.6 km
In contrast to 2019, the 50K race start wasn’t a staggered one but a single start for the entire field of 1100 runners. Although I first had my doubts about this, positioning myself about two thirds back proved to be a good bet for me.
After that moving send off we started out along the wooden walkways straddling the Phutu (constant splashing’ in Māori) geyser, the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere. No one could be bothered to move faster than a mere trudge. Here’s why!
Now if this isn’t a truly unique race start, I would like to see what is. But with the bar set so incredibly high in the beginning, one couldn’t help but wonder if Tarawera could keep up the ante for the whole 50k’s? Well, they did.
After a camera-clicking trot through the scenic thermal valley on the Te Puia nature trek trail we were immersed into the Whakarewarewa forest on a gently undulating leafy single track. Forests! My favourite running surface! And if you have a quick glance at the route and profile up there, you would notice that the Tarawera 50K was pretty much in and out of the forest for the entire course!
But there was even more to gush about. Nearing the first aid station at 13 km, following the Puarenga Trail along the eponymous stream, I found myself enthralled by stands of curiously looking riparian trees. Trees which I would later find out was the endemic punga tree, or New Zealand silver tree-fern.
I made a mental note to return to the spot the next day, family in tow, for such a magical place was to be shared with loved ones and not to be rushed through. It was for settling and musing, picnicking and stone-skipping, barefooting and dallying to the heart’s and eye’s content, imprinting images and smells and sounds and textures for easy revisits years from now.
One of the aspects of Tarawera that my family and I really loved was the fact that there were plenty of spectator spots where supporters could see their athletes. Normally, the kind of races we find ourselves in are too remote to allow for numerous aid stations, let alone have the hubs and boys there for much-needed love! But in beautiful Rotorua where a feeling of untouched wilderness is a stones’ throw from downtown, access to the course was very simple.
The gentle hills within the first 13 km went by almost unnoticed, as the forest trails and gravel roads made for easy running. Temperatures beneath an overcast sky were pleasantly cool. Accumulative vertical gain for this section was around 440 m, and similar or much less for the remaining sections of the course.
To Green Lake (1) – 22.7 km
More easy, flat and beautiful running on forest trails and short sections of service roads followed. By this time I was acutely aware of the unique bird songs sounding above runners’ banter and rhythmic footfall. One bird’s call especially had me captivated, as it was the most peculiar sound. We would later learn that the “electric bird” with its complex variety of bell sounds, clicks, cackles, creaks and groans was in fact the tui bird. The tui, a honey eater, is abundant in New Zealand and can, like a parrot, learn to imitate human speech.
Also interesting to know is that New Zealand have only one native mammal, a bat, and not a single snake on either of the islands. They have several introduced mammal species though, all regarded as pests. All available natural niches were once occupied by some kind of bird, which makes a forest run like Tarawera even more interesting (and very attractive for a snake-o-phobe like me!)
To Green lake (2) – 29.3 km
A delightful bustle and some crowd organising followed at the Green lake aid station. This station served as the 22 km as well as the 29 km aid stations, so before and after completing a short scenic loop on the western banks of Green Lake.
When I say delightful, I am explicitly NOT referring to the first bit of the loop, considering that, for an entire kilometer, we were facing a horde of runners already returning from their loop. Runners which were now more than 30 min ahead of us after a mere 22 km run, looking exactly like I wasn’t feeling at that moment in time: fast, focused and gunning for the finish line. Also, the sun decided to bless us with it’s presence and things were heating up in the non-shady bits.
Thankfully, after that sorrowful first few minutes of head-dropping and meditative focusing on more pleasant things (did you see those aid stations?) we once again found ourselves among some huge trees with intermittent views of this enchanting expanse of serene waters.
And then of course it was my turn to bestow pity upon the poor souls heading out for their loop as we headed back to Green Lake aid station. Admittedly, it was a mere smattering of back-markers, whom I suspect were mostly entered for the 50 km walk. Also, they looked much more in control of their emotions than I was a short 7 km back, clearly coping with their animosity with much more ease.
To Blue Lake – 35. 7 Km
After a quick stop and refill at the Green Lake aid station for the second time, we set off for Blue Lake. With 29 km in the bag I was still feeling relatively good and on par for a 7-ish hour finish as planned. I was looking forward to see Hubby and the boys again,
hoping knowing that they would be having a ball at Blue Lake.
About a kilometer or so out of Green Lake aid station, comfortably settled in on a hot and dusty climb, I was startled by throngs of runners incoming from the opposite direction. Please heavens, no, I thought, not another out-and-back! Turned out they tragically missed the Green Lake loop entirely and had to go back. Poor things!
Meeting up with the boys at Blue Lake was such a highlight for me! As a running parent I often feel guilty about leaving my guys to themselves for long periods while I run, wondering if they are okay, if they are eating, if they are wearing sunblock and all those. Nico is such a super-supportive hubby and a most loving and resourceful dad who thrives on adventures like these and usually nails all of the above, but seeing them actually having fun midway through a race is always comforting.
To Redwoods – 44.9 km
Watered, fed and refreshed, I was ready and rearing for the final 16 km. Leaving the aid station on a comfortable pace, I noticed a slight urge to wee. Nevertheless, knowing that I a) almost never wee on marathons, b) would rather go in the bush than in a portaloo, I ignored it and pushed on, believing that it would soon go away like it always does.
But this time it was different. About three k’s further the distress signals from my bladder was getting annoying to the point where I couldn’t run any longer. I started to look for exits off the trail where I could zip into the forest and get it over and done with. What then followed was a true comedy of errors.
I entered the forest via the first tiny clearing I found where I could fit through. Not wanting to break bush too far in I decided to squat real close to the trail and, although mostly concealed by undergrowth, I still faced the trail in order to keep my backside beyond sight. Just as I dropped my tights and went down, another runner with the same idea saw my clearing and turned in. In surprise, I reversed a step and stuck my nether regions straight into a shrub with the tiniest, stickiest, scratchiest of seeds. But of the dire, comical consequences I was still unaware.
Soon after I was back on the trail I knew I had problems. My thighs were on fire! And then I was incredibly thankful to be a foreigner in New Zealand. For the next 30 minutes or so I was forced to stoop to a level previously unknown to the running fraternity of the southern hemisphere. I was reduced to the likes of a hobbling, demented buffoon, stopping every 10 m or so with either one hand down or another up my pants, feebly trying to dig the pesky seeds from my itching flesh.
Finally with the Big Itch under control, I could enjoy most of what would be the last stretch of the forest run for the day. But although the statuesque red wood trees were greatly impressive and charming, awe can only get you that far. When the aid station didn’t appear after the stated 9 km (or 10 km either!) I felt a tad whiny. According to my watch, an additional 2 km crept in during this leg and swiftly eroded away at my humour and motivation reserves.
The mother of all downhills also did not help (did I mention that I only trained for uphills and not downhills?) And something was very strange with my bladder. I kept having a huge urge to go, but when I did, nothing came out. And running on an ‘overly full’ bladder can be really painful, as I found out.
To the Finish – 51.8 km (53.6 km)
By the time I reached Red Woods aid station my overall pace was way down. I was hurting and ready to have it over and done with, so after a quick chat and a hug from Hubby I set off for the final 6 km to the finish line.
Although any race, be it a 10K or an ultra, is always 10 % too long, this last bit proved to be particularly tough for me on this occasion. Yes, the course was flat and totally sprintable, but my achy bladder made it impossible to run. Even the slight pounding of a slow trot felt like hammer blows to my insides, so the walk breaks were long and plenty.
In the hours and days after the race I would learn that my bladder was, in fact, being irritated by it’s own empty sides rubbing against each other while I was running on a totally empty bladder for hours. Although I drank a lot on race day, I knew I didn’t rehydrate enough in the days leading up to the race after a week of traveling across continents. It was a hard, hard lesson to learn, as I could hardly walk by the end of the day.
I am sure this stretch around Sulfur Bay can be quite enjoyable on any other day, but at this specific point in time the hot sulfur fumes wasn’t really adding to my general sense of well being. In fact quite the opposite.
After another 50 minutes’ plod, the glorious finish line came into view. I was SO ready to sit! (not unlike after any other marathon, for that matter)
Despite the little freak sufferfest at the end I enjoyed Tarawera immensely. Yet again it was the best way I could imagine to see and experience some of what a new and beautiful country, this time New Zealand, had on offer. To have been able to have my hubby and boys along for some of it was such a memorable bonus.
In the week after the race we went back to Whakarewarewa forest to play and explore at leisure. Nico even went for a run on the glorious Puarenga trail and also on the Blue Lake circumnavigating trail. Rotorua, probably comparable with Vancouver in Canada, is an outdoors playground for its people who all seem to enjoy and respect nature.
Kia ora, Aotearoa! Thank you for having us and sending us off with bags heavy with lovely memories. We would love to come back (soon)!