Tradition. History. Spirituality. Passion. Paul Charteris, RD for Tarawera 100k had it all. And yet the race is a mere 6 years old. In its first year, fewer than 100 runners graced this beauty of a course, and already he is up to over 700 in the combined 100k, 85k, 60k, and relay race. It doesn’t take much to understand the numbers – the intriguing sulfer-laden air and steam plumes rising above the town of Rotorua, the old trails through the forests and around the lakes that made up the course, and the connections between the native Maori and the Europeans and their combined love and respect for the land. Add to that Paul’s love of ultra running and old school approach to ultramarathons, perhaps learned by spending extensive time on the Western States course and it’s cast of characters, and you have a world class event.
I arrived Wednesday before the race and was welcomed to Paul’s with friends new and old. He treated runners and volunteers to a barbecue, and fretted about the weather – cyclone Lusi was due to arrive on the weekend, presenting the possibility of wrecking race day. Thursday was still brilliant – late fall temperatures, soft skies, made the possibility of a cyclone seem rather remote. At 5:30, an 8k fun run was held, through the local but world famous Whakarewarewa forest.
It was beautiful and surreal – made me feel like a hobbit – and it ended in Te Puia replete with mud pools and hot springs. There the media groups held a photo-shoot of the elite athletes, and we had a playful time running around in circles in front of a thermal pool.
Friday morning we returned to Te Puia for a traditional welcome of the native people, in which both Paul and last year’s champion Sage Canaday were recognized and honored.
After a press conference and interview, I made my way back to the hotel for the pre-race meeting followed by a panel Q and A where I was allowed to act expert on running ultras, along with Sage, Lucy Bartholomew, Brendan Davies, Mike Wardian, Michael Aish, and Scott Hawker. I was fortunate to have gained a home stay with friends John and Rebecca Moore, formerly living in Corvallis, and being with family certainly kept me grounded. Home cooked meals and curious children make me feel quite at home, and for much of the time I had forgotten I had a race the following day. Nearing bedtime, the news came out – Cyclone Lusi was to hit Rotorua late Saturday afternoon, necessitating a shorter, safer course. Not one to ever consider fighting Mother Nature, I was relieved that we wouldn’t be allowed in harms way. Now it was time to rethink my race. It would be about 70k (42 miles) so effort could increase, but by how much? I settled on a heart rate between 155-160 – a little slower than for 50k, a bit faster than for 100k. I laid out my race gear, and by 8:30 I was asleep.
Four-fifteen I was up. Coffee, rice and eggs, and I was good to go. At 5:45 John drove me to the start where we were joined by the 100s. I warmed up a bit, headed for the start, and again we were given a traditional Maori dance, and a highly entertaining Tarawera ballad by a local girl and her ukelele.
A bit past 6:30, the stream of head-lamped runners took to the trail. It began with a long steady climb of double and single track, with series of steps built in. In the darkness it was not possible to discern individuals, a sure way to keep myself under control. Even s dawn approached, the forest here was quite dense and dark. Eventually, lamps went off and the day was warm with gray skies and dark green forests all around. Each moment I hit single track, my inner child danced along the trail, smiling. Dark, duffy and rooty, I consciously picked my feet high, bent on staying upright for the day. We were fairly spread out, although I had already started an on-again off-again relationship with one Fiona from Wellington – I outran her on the downs, and she outran me on the climbs, and in the middle bits, we became friends.
One Lusi-adjustment to the race was for the long course runners to do an initial 12k loop, bringing us back to the start line, while the short course clipped this off for a 60k. Now reaching this point, I saw Anna Frost off to the side giving me a cheer. I tossed her my headlamp for safe keeping, drank some Heed and soda, topped off a bottle and was ready to do climb number 1 again. Running off, I saw Bryon Powell, yelled back “how many?”. He said I was 7th place and all were within 5 minutes. For the second time I made the long ascent, climbed the stairs, ran in the woods, only now I got to really see it. I felt as fresh as the first time up, and managed to move up one place as I passed 17 year young Lucy, having a bit of an early blowup. Still in good spirits though, I told her she would recover. Soon we passed the loop and continued on an eventually nice long downhill to Blue Lake, rolling along on some very runnable sandy/rocky/hard trail. I was feeling pretty solid, keeping myself working hard, when I was easily passed by a young woman on a slight uphill. Our exchange was pleasant, but I didn’t quite hear her. Of course I tried to imagine that she said something about being on a relay, but what I heard didn’t come close, so now I had moved back to 7th. Finally at the aid station I quick filled a bottle, drank a lot of coke and Heed, and re-passed her. I felt splendid on the single track again, and soon caught up to Fiona who had been ahead for quite some time. We played along this single track, then ran out onto the pavement awhile, to where spectators could easily line the road. Entering back on single track, I was again caught from behind, and the three of us gals danced along the rooty duff until I said to Fiona “I’m hesitant to pass, as I’m sure you’ll need to go around as soon as we start climbing.” but around I went, the other girl right behind. I kept my lead over the two of them all the way to the next aid station at lake Okereka, now in 5th or so place. Lusi was making her way down, and the moisture in the air went from mist to drizzle. I was definitely wet, but I hadn’t really noticed. A volunteer helped my find my drop bag and Paul told me I was 5th woman. I left the aid station and began the gentle climb up the pavement, when I was again caught by girl number one. I said “well, at least we get to come back down this at the end.” She replied “we do? I haven’t a clue what the course is – I’m so blonde!” I told her she sure looked good, nonetheless,to which she responded “at least until I blow up!” The way she pulled ahead, I had serious doubts that would happen. Three kilometers later we hit another aid station, but it would be over 14k to the next. I drank a lot, then headed on toward Okataina lake. This involved a very long single track of a variety of trail – some double wide, some single and rutted, some grassy. It was a gradual uphill for a good half, then it began to go down. I was passing a lot of the 60k runners, but ahead I could see a woman that looked like she was from the longer race. She had begun to falter, so I said a few kind words I passed her, moving back to fifth place. Soon after that I was passed again by another gal, and was unable to tell if she was relay. She was moving easily and quickly.
Summiting is always a victory for me, and now I began to descend to Okataina. I had heard it was quite steep, and that was no exaggeration. While I welcomed the effect of the gravity, I acknowledged that I would not be so fond of it on the return trip. I’ve learned to maximize my strengths (downhill) and work within my ability on my weaknesses (climbing). After the first steep slope, came. Another, and then another. Two men from relay teams had passed me on their return trip when I finally saw Sage coming up on of the long ascents. We yelled “good job” to each other, and it was quite some time before seeing the second place man. Yun Yanqiao, Michael Aishe, Scott Hawker, Vajin Armstrong all came toward me, game on. When I saw Mike Wardian coming toward me he looked bewildered and off his game. “Hey man, let’s go!” I yelled. But it was not to be his day. On a uphill amongst the downhill, I passed another woman, so now I was 4th or 5th. Short, steep switchbacks led us down to the Okataina aid station. Drop bags were available, but we had a short 2k out and back section, so I asked the volunteers if they could have my bag ready upon my return. As I began to speed out, John and Rebecca appeared having come to support and perhaps pace me. They asked if I needed anything, and I said I was right, and jumped onto the single track. Paul would later relate that this next 2k was the beginning of the best single track of the entire race, and it killed him that we were only running a short bit, but Mother Nature always wins. It was here I was able to really see where I was stacking up. I had gone about half mile when I saw the leading woman. With our names on our bibs, I knew she was “Jo”, but who the hell was Jo? Next was the first woman who had passed me, Claire, having moved nicely up to second, then the one who had just passed me, Dawn, followed by Beth Cardelli of Australia. I had checked my watch at Jo and Beth, and at the turn around, calculated that Jo as 8 minutes up and Beth was 3. Now on my way back I saw who was close on my heels – the woman I had just passed plus Fiona, and then Lucy.
Back at the aid station, Rebecca’s running friend, Andy, jumped in to pace me to the finish. I was thrilled. As promised, the volunteers had my bag. I took the bottle and gels, and off Andy and I went. He was eager to help, and I assured him that just following me would be grand. We started the long trudge up, and I was happy to be still pushing hard with about 12 miles to go. I was still unsure about some girls I had passed, so fancied myself as high as 3rd place. Now we had more traffic coming towards us, and thanks to Paul’s exposure of the elite athletes, I was getting as much personal cheering as I do in the US, including someone referring to me as royalty. Didn’t hurt the ego, that’s for sure. I knew the climbs would seem endless, and at one point I looked up and groaned. Andy said to stop looking up. So I kept my head down, tripped and fell in one of the most benign trail sections – which is a least not so painful. I brushed off the gritty wet dirt, and kept going, hoping to both close in on some girls, and not get caught as well. After the final summit, my legs unwound, and off I flew. Happily, my quads were golden.
Lusi was picking up steam, which I only noticed by seeing how wet I was. It was still warm, but I realized I was having a harder time keeping my heart rate up. I drank more of my mix of Vitargo and coconut water. Andy reminded me gently that it had been 30 minutes since my last gel. The thought of another one turned my stomach, but I pulled it out and held it for a few minutes. Eventually I gingerly placed it to my lips, gave a squeeze, swallowed, and said “yummy!” to which Andy said “really?”. I assured him it was most decidedly not, but I liked to try and fool myself. Regardless, it did start to sink in a bit. The amount of uphill in this downhill was getting a bit unbelievable, and I worried that my semi-truck uphill speed would result in getting passed by another woman. As I crested another hill again, I heard the dreaded sound of another woman. I tore off downhill, putting as much space as possible between she and I, with no idea if she was racing individual or relay – I would wait to ask later. When I could no longer hear her, Andy assured me she was on a relay, but my momentum was carrying me nicely now. We reached the final aid station, and I was incredibly parched. I downed 2 big drinks of water, and Andy and I tore out for the last 3k of mostly downhill paved running.
I was grunting pretty loudly at this point, and was satisfied that I had put it all out there. Down and down we went, Andy pointing to his right side for me to run behind, draft, and hang on best I could. With 1k to go, I saw my friend Peter walking his finish to the 60k in. I yelled at him “Peter!Why aren’t you running!” Apparently I shamed him into it, as he finished shortly after me.
I now was sprinting for the finish, happy to get my wheels really going for the last little bit across the soggy grass. Paul was at the finish, gave me a huge Kiwi hug, and placed the beautifully carved wood medal around my neck. It was soon confirmed I was 5th female, spread out from 7:02 to my 7:26. I was pleased with my effort and the competitive field that had come to show their stuff. What this course lost in distance made up for in difficulty, as it measured 44 miles and 7900 feet – nearly the amount of gain for the regular 62 mile run. Lusi was now in full force, and in the pouring rain and wind, John and Rebecca got me out of the misery and back to a hot shower.
Prize giving took place next day, and Paul put the top 5 finishers on the podium. He asked us each to tell the audience about our individual takes on the race – a nice moment to share with everyone there. Every effort throughout this weekend seemed to be about making the individual experiences of this event accessible and meaningful to everyone.
The newly formed Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT) chose wisely in including Tarawera 100k. Runners and their supporters from around the world were able to experience the unique country, its laid back personality and warm hospitality, and its pride in its beauty, as a bonus to the event itself. Thank you Paul, for putting your heart and soul into this event! Thanks to my hosts John and Rebecca Moore, the volunteers, to Scott Sports, and Injinji, and UTWT for getting me to the start line.