Three of the last four winters I have visited New Zealand. 2012-2013 for six months as a family on a 2,000 mile bike tour, 2015 to film SchlarbWolf Kiwi Tracks and again this year. New Zealand is a phenomenal place to play in the outdoors and escape North American winter. The premier ultramarathon in New Zealand is the Tarawera Ultramarathon. Paul Charteris and Tim Day have successfully put together a world class event that is now part of the Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT). Three takeaways about Tarawera:
1) Tarawera has drawn amazing talent from around the world, making a real star studded race the last three years
2)February is in the middle of most people’s off-season, but Tarawera is one of the premier winter trail ultras in the world
3)Paul and Tim put together the most fun and impressive pre, intra and post race activities I’ve ever seen or experienced
Lyndon Marceau Photography
Coming into the race, I had reasonable cardio fitness and a little leg turnover, but lacked specific training for a trail 100k. My average training week was a mix of a couple uphill ski days, a couple resort ski days with Felix, an average of about 5 days of running, one of those days had tempo intervals, flatter easy runs and a 20-24 mile longer road run every other week. So why would I travel across the world to race a very competitive 100k? In addition to the draw of the above listed points, I ran Tarawera in 2013 and had a horrible race that included a long walking section, I needed a third UTWT to compete in their rankings and lastly, I really enjoy a mid-winter escape to full on summer. I made this trip to New Zealand into a two week adventure exploring, running, hitch-hiking, camping and general summer fun fest”ing”.
Some of the race activities. Lyndon Marceau Photography
This year Tarawera saw the likes of Jonas Buud (World 100k Champion, 6:22), Mike Wardian, Yoshikazu Hara (2nd best 24hr run all-time), Vajin Armstrong (Kiwi Stud), David Byrne (3:40 1500, 28:40 10k!!), Ryan Sandes, Cyril Cointre (French Stud), Ford Smith, etc… an amazing line up. Leading up to the race I didn’t suffer the classic pre-race stress or my least favorite, the sleepless night leading up to the race. I was relaxed and my expectations for the race were to have a positive experience, not blow up and enjoy running on snow free trails.
Lyndon Marceau Photography
The race started in steady rain at 6am in a Redwood forest (not native to NZ) on the edge of Rotorua. As most every competitive ultra, things went out aggressively. Somewhere around 10 minutes into the race I ran my left leg into a log protruding onto the trail. While it only skinned my quad on the surface, my leg was pretty badly bruised. I limped for a few minutes and then just had a slight hitch in my stride and a very sore quad thereafter. At 10k I was probably around 20th place.
As the sun rose and we made our way to Blue Lake. I was feeling great as far as my cardio and energy levels, but my downhill running legs felt oddly tight and weak. It didn’t take long for me to realize while there was only about 9,000ft of descent, I hadn’t run downhill in a few months. Fear settled into my mind. In the mid to high teens for place and around Blue Lake I was enjoying the most technical section of trail on the course. I passed a few people and caught up to Ford Smith. Somewhere around 30k I realized my bruised quad and subsequent change in stride was causing my groin to tighten up and coupled with my lack of downhill running legs, I fully accepted that I was in for a long day. I half heartedly debated a drop, but stuck with a survival pace that hurt, but I felt I could hold for the long haul… mountain 100 mile cruise pace was my reality.
The look of “holding on”
Energy and cardio was insultingly great, but I had to just keep the legs swinging. A bit before halfway I passed Cyril and then Wardian having a rough go at it. They would both turn it around after the falls (67k). In 7th place through 50k I was determined to get this race finished in the top 10 and had hopes that with some carnage up front a top 5 wasn’t totally out of the question. A top 5 wouldn’t be the result of a “good race” but rather a “hold-on and survive run”. The rain continued well past half way. The falls were gorgeous, the trail and foliage was certainly entertaining. There was mud and the pace was well off what it could have been if it was dry, but the condition of my legs made that a moot point.
I was not looking forward to the flat forest road section that makes up most all of the last 40k, except that it signaled progress. The rain stopped, it got hot and the sun became a factor. Running was becoming miserable for me and the distance still ahead a bit unbearable. Then I could see someone in front of me. Passing someone into 6th place was a perfect distraction from the near breakdown. The game of counting minutes between drinks of Vitargo, miles to next aid station and conjuring ridiculous fractions for running progress was full on. I tried to be encouraged by how well my hydration and fuelling was going, but the kilometers were crawling past and the wheels were falling off considering how fast and flat the terrain was.
On the “loop of despair”, which is a lollypop out and back, I saw Yoshikazu and Vajin nearly two miles ahead of me, but saw no one on my tail. I did see what I thought were Altra Olympus tracks, which would signal Ford might be close behind. In the end it wasn’t Ford (12th place), but I ran scared for the last 20+k. The clouds rolled in and it cooled off a bit and I did my best to keep moving through the finish.
I’m happy with 6th place. I’m in a better place this year than I have been in a few years for building for the upcoming summer season, which is encouraging. I had a blast before the race and a wonderful time exploring volcanoes after the race. Thank you to all my sponsors, to the Ultra Trail World Tour for supporting athletes and most of all to Paul and Tim for putting on such a great event.
Here are the top 10 finishers:
- Jonas Buud (Asics) — 8:00:53
- David Byrne — 8:22:39
- Ryan Sandes (Salomon) — 8:30:40
- Yoshikazu Hara — 8:40:17
- Vajin Armstrong — 8:46:12
- Jason Schlarb (Altra) — 9:16:48
- Michael Wardian (Hoka One One) — 9:27:23
- Craig Torr — 9:33:23
- Rudi Smith — 9:33:53
- Cyril Cointre (WAA) — 9:39:38