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2020 Tarawera Miler: My First DNF

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

33 hours 11 minutes and 46 seconds, that's the time I saw on my watch before I hit the stop button. After 150km my first time attempting the Tarawera Ultra Marathon 100 Miler had come to an end, this was also my first "Did Not Finish", but why... well there were a number of reasons, a number of mistakes and a lot of lessons learned over the last day and a half out on the field.

I'll admit, writing this post hasn't been an easy one, mainly because I DNF'd (Did Not Finish for those not familiar with the term) and it has been hard to be motivated enough to write about it. But here it goes.

I guess I really should start at the beginning, I won't go into a huge amount of detail, but lets just say that after the Kepler Challenge in 2019 I started to get some issues with my hamstring and hip, I had decided to take some time off training (not ideal) in the hopes that this would heal up. I continued to do some small 5-10km runs, but nothing too strenuous, in early January a couple of friends and I decided to run the Abel Tasman track, approximately 34km. I figured it would at least give me a chance to see how my injury would hold out, thankfully it seemed to be ok, some niggles here and there, but I felt it would be good enough to be able to take on Tarawera 3 weeks later.

This year there was another great crew of friends up there, a group from my Run Club had all decided to pop up and run different events. Jon, Emily, Rich, Bartosz and I were all there and ready to represent our Kathmandu Run Club family at the event. Jon would be taking on the 100 mile ultra with me, Emily would be doing the 21km on little to no training and be Jon's support crew, Rich signed up to the 50km just two weeks out from his next race and Bart was taking on his first Ultra Marathon... the 102km.

Race Day

Up at 2am, amazed I managed to actually get a relatively good sleep considering I was about to take on my first 100 Mile Ultra. I was up and showered pretty quickly, had some food fairly early as well to help it settle before the race kicked off. I met Emily and Jon downstairs of the hotel and Emily drove us both down to the start line. We walked down to the start line ready to get going, but also a little nervous about what I was about to take on, knowing this was about to be my longest race so far and I would not be sleeping until sometime tomorrow.

We got some photos together and then lined up ready for the race to begin. We had the traditional Maori send off, the countdown was on and then we were off. I can't remember tell you much about the first 20km or so as it was all dark at this stage, I do remember the view over Rotorua, overlooking all the city lights as we climbed our first hill, the first aid station was pretty quick, and then onto the second aid station.

After a refuel of fluids and food it was back on and moving, on my way on to the Buried Village aid station at about the 30km mark. I refilled at this aid station, taking my BCAA's which I had put in as part of my nutrition plan. Stupidly at this aid station I made a couple of mistakes. Firstly I didn't refill my bottle that I had my BCAA's in, this meant I had only 1 liter of water for the next 15.3km, secondly I decided to change my socks, unfortunately the socks I put on were a size larger than what they were suppose to be. This would end up leading to blisters on my heels until I arrived at the next aid station.

As I left the aid station, I met a lady that I started to chat too, as we were talking I heard she had done the Naseby Ultra back in August... I thought a moment... "Wait, what's your name" I asked, "Estrella" she said. "No way... your the one Vanessa said to look out for, I'm Jonathan". Turns out Estrella had run the Naseby 100 Miler when I

was down there crewing for my friend Vanessa.

From that point we ran for about 12km together, we got a little train going on and over the next 12km our train got a bit longer with more people joining in. I was stuck at the front, I called out and said, "If anyone wants to pass then please feel free", it seemed everyone was happy to allow me to set the pace. Eventually one guy passed on the uphill and took off, I never saw him again, but was grateful that he didn't allow me to hold him up. I finally reached the Isthmus aid station desperate for water, I filled up my bottles, polished off a full 500ml and filled up again, then I spotted the oranges, I ate about 8 quarter orange pieces and then it was off to the boat crossing.

Arriving at the boat crossing and enjoyed a lovely mocktail while I waited for the boat to come in. Upon the boat I received some cellphone coverage, I had a quick couple of messages come in seeing how I was doing, so I flicked off some replies and had some food while I could rest a bit. As you can tell from the photo I was suffering a bit, I hadn't realised it at the time, but as I look back at my photos and videos taken over that time it was clear that I wasn't happy.

We got to the shoreline, jumped off the boat and continued onto the the Rerewhakaaitu aid station, by this stage the heat was starting to get up there, no trees to hide from the sun either.

I arrived at the Rerewhakaaitu aid station and used this opportunity to change my socks again into ones that were the right size, by this stage I had a giant blister beginning to form on the right side of my right heel, I spent a couple of minutes trying to pop it, but it was so calloused that I couldn't break the skin. Stuff it I said to myself, I'll just have to put up with it. I had some baby food, before getting ready to head out again, a parent said to her daughter, "hey look, that guy is eating what you like to eat", I offered her some as I was just about to put the rest in my drop bag before heading out, but they declined. A quick bathroom stop and I was back out onto the road in the beaming heat for another 9km or so. At this point I met Rosie, we were both plodding along in the heat and her family were driving along in their vehicle cheering her along as we both ran down the road. It was later after this event that I found her kids would refer to me as Grey Shorts guy.

Eventually we were off the road and back in the forest onto forestry road, I'll admit, it was nice to be out of the sun by this stage. My feet were hurting bad by this stage, the blister I had was still there and all the dust from the dirt trails had been getting into my shoes and under my feet. it seemed no mater how often I would stop to clean my shoes out, there was always dirt under my feet. Little had I realised, I hadn't been actually been taking off my shoes and clearing the dirt from between my socks and feet, had I done that... who knows, perhaps the outcome of the race could have been different... but as I said, I learnt a lot from the mistakes made during this race, this being just one of them.

As I travelled down the road I met another guy along the way, his name was Darron, we got to talking and it turned out that his drop bag which contained he headlamp and batteries hadn't arrived at the earlier aid station, I found that he needed triple A batteries, and as I was using my headlamp that used another type, my spare headlamp at the next aid station should have some batteries that he could use. Leaving the Puhipuhi aid station I had a bit of a burst of energy, I had somehow tuned out the pain in my feet and I could run comfortably, I thought I would take advantage of this and run for as long as I could to gain some ground, I passed Darron again who called out "Ohhhh, Jono has his burst going on", "Yeap, and I'm going to keep going as long as I can." After about 5 minutes, I felt a sharp quick pain in my right food, and then all of a sudden instant relief. The blister that I had been trying to pop about 60km in had finally popped itself, and wow, did it feel good to have that gone.

Reaching Titoki Aid station I had heard that one of the elite Athletes had pulled out, and the next Aid Station (The Outlet). I understand he was having a problem with his calf of shin or something like that, Wow I thought, I'm going to do better than an Elite Athlete, you have to celebrate the small wins, but in saying that... it's still a heck of a long way to come from overseas only to not be able to complete the event. After refuelling with fluids and some food, I headed off at a little around 9pm or a fraction later, it was just starting to become dark as I turned the corner and headed into the forest track that would lead me to The Outlet aid station. This is when I met William... As I moved along I could start to tell that someone was following me, as I sped up he would speed up, if I slowed down he would slow down. I started to feel a little uncomfortable, no idea why. I said "Feel free to go ahead if you want to pass", it turned out the reason he was running when I was running is because his headlamp was dead, turns out he was using my light to help guide the way for him. William had been running with a friend and had packed his backup batteries at "The Outlet" aid station thinking they would have been there in plenty of time. Unfortunately the friend seemed to be a little too slow and had cut into that time time to make it to The Outlet before it got dark. From what I recall, they insisted he carry on and they would "Catch Up". I helped light the way for William as we continued along the track as it was getting a bit more technical now. I generally find this part some of the more technical part of the trail and know during the daylight it's not so much fun, so doing it at night was getting a bit more challenging, We arrived at a steep part that headed downhill, as I begun to step down I slipped, quickly grabbing whatever I could get my hands up. William quickly grabbed my vest and helped pull me to my feet. Well, I guess there are bonuses doing sections like this with another person. I could only imagine how hard this part would have been for William without any light.

As we arrived at the aid station, I got my drop bag and sat down to have a bit of a meal before I would be able to continue on, I took this time to check over my feet put some Vaseline on, change my socks. Have a bit of a feed, although by this stage I really didn't feel like eating much at all. I went through my drop bag, got out some triple A batteries and asked the people at the drop bag pickup to provide those to Darron when he arrived. I then went my Drop Bag checklist and at this point I made another series of mistakes. Firstly, I decided to not take my backup headlamp, the one I had been using in the morning had worked rather well on the 1 battery and I figured it would be fine as I had another battery in my pack. Secondly, I only took 1 spare backup battery. Now these Batteries aren't standard AA batteries at all, they are 18650 batteries, a lot bigger and can usually run for a good amount of time, provided you have ones with high mAH's and the one I used this morning should last about 6 hours on a pretty good setting, so 1 should have been enough... so I thought.

After getting everything that I thought I needed I looked around, I saw Darron arrive and told the ladies that was the guy who the AAA batteries were to go to. I couldn't see William anywhere, so figured he must have already headed off. I got my pack on and off I went, after what felt like 30 minutes running along by myself I heard someone coming up behind me. I called out "Hello" and then a familiar voice called back, it was William. "I thought you were already ahead of me" I said, "No, I took a nap" he replied, that nap must have really helped him as he was just flying by and I was taking my time, trying not to roll an ankle. He zoomed past and that was the last I would see of him for the rest of the event. About 2 hours after leaving The Outlet aid station my headlamp finally died, no worries I figured, I will just swap out the battery, I swapped out the battery and carried on. 30 - 40 minutes later my second battery ran flat, but why, when I ordered these batteries they were suppose to handle about 3 times the battery life than the one that came with it, well thats what the mAH rating was showing. Turns out you can't believe everything you read on the Internet, I should have had these batteries tested by Bart beforehand. Turns out these AliExpress batteries only held about a third of what the original battery held. I had brought three and if I had actually carried all three with me, I probably wouldn't have been stuck in the middle of a forest with no light. Stuck with no light, I wondered what to do. I suddenly received a message from Emily, her and Jon were on their way to the aid station to see me come in, I quickly flicked off a message "I need a headlamp", unfortunately they didn't get the message in time. I had thankfully grabbed my battery pack at The Outlet and the charging cable for my phone, unfortunately I hadn't packed one for the headlamp, that would have helped big time. I decided all I could do was plug in my phone to the battery pack and hope like hell the flash on my phone would work well enough. I carried on for about another 30 minutes and finally arrived at the Aid Station.

Emily had my drop bag ready, grabbed my headlamp and took it off to someone to see if they could potentially charge it for me while I got all my other gear sorted. I sat, I considered changing my shoes at this point, but then decided my feet hurt enough as it was, changing my shoes now could just make things even worse, so decided against it. Tired and feeling a bit worse for wear, I was now at the longest time I'd ever been awake. I took on some Red Bull which gave me a bit of a caffeine kick, got my headlamp back and waited for the moment of truth, would the charging have given me any light whatsoever... and... Nope. half a second and it was out. Well, I guess I'll have to carry on with my cellphone flashlight and hope like heck it doesn't burn out. As I got the last of my things together, I looked up to see Adrian Henry come into the Aid Station. Adrian had been the focus of a small video clip about the Tarawera Miler called "Chasing Punamu" after he missed completing it a couple of years earlier and how he came back the following year to complete the course and earn that sought after Punamu. I figured it was time to hit the trails and make the biggest climb of the day and get my way to Miller Road Aid Station.

Daylight had broken by the time I arrived at the Miller Road Aid Station, I knew time was getting short I arrived and filled my bottles with Coke and Mountain Dew, about the only thing I could currently stomach at this point, the two tailend charlies were here waiting to walk the final 20+ km's, I started leaving the aid station and was asked, do you need some fuel, I declined I had plenty with me and said I just needed to keep moving or I wouldn't make the cut off time. I began down the road and Chris Townley called out, "It's hot, do you need some sunscreen." I though for a few seconds, I turned around and started to head back, Chris said, "Just keep moving, I'll bring it to you". I'm very thankful for that, the sun was up and getting warm, and I had stupidly decided to not carry my hat for the morning, thinking that I would just get it when I got to Blue Lake.

I carried on down the road and then along into the bush onto a nice track that headed around Lake Okareka, I spotted a young lady running around the lake with her Dog, I said.... "Wish I could run your pace right now", "I'm not running as far as you though" she said. I approached the boardwalk and spotted the Cameraman sitting down, normally the sight of a cameraman would get me running... I couldn't even attempt that today. I was just not in a state where I could even force myself to try and run. I eventually got to one of the parts of the trail that I dislike the most, a bit of forest just off Okareka Loop Road, I stumbled my way though this, but will admit, it was definitely a lot easier doing this during the day than it is at night. As I came out of the forest I could see Blue Lake, I had been doing the math's in my head, I knew how far it was to go, and I knew how fast I was moving on average. It was about this time that I knew I wasn't going to make it to the finish. I walked up to a Marshall at this point, and made the decision to pull out, "Are you sure you want to", "Yes, I've done the calculations, I'm not going to make it before the cut off", "OK, I'll just need to get your Race Bib number and let the officials know", it was this point I thought about it. "Wait, let me make a call"... I figured if I called Emily, she would either talk me into walking the last bit or would come and pick me up.

I called Emily, she didn't answer, "Oh well, I guess I better carry on, if I make it, then great, if not, well at least I didn't pull out". I carried on around Blue Lake for about 1km and it was Emily, I knew she was waiting for me at the Blue Lake Aid Station and that prize-giving was going to be starting shortly. I told her to head down and watch the prize-giving as I was simply not going to make it to the Aid Station before the cut off time. She asked if I was sure and I insisted she go. I knew I wasn't going to make it before then I would have felt terrible had she missed seeing Jon up on the podium. As I carried on around the lake I turned around and saw Rosie coming from behind, she and another guy had a burst of energy going on and called out to me "Come on mate, join on in with us and we will make it". I knew there was no way I could, my body was sore, hips were stuffed, I knew if I had, I would probably do more damage and still risk not making it there in time. "Thanks, but go on without me, I simply can't run anymore I'm broken", and before I knew it, they were gone. At about 12:25pm, I reached the set of stairs that I remembered from previous years at the back of Blue Lake, as I struggled to get up the stairs I reached the top and sat down for a moment. I was in pain, emotional, and really didn't want to carry on, I knew there was no way I was meeting that 12:30pm cut off, with still a couple of kilometers to go, it just wasn't possible.

A couple of ladies tried to encourage me on, I knew I was going to DNF by this stage, and told them, but they insisted I could keep moving and make it to the aid station. Then one mentioned something to me "The cut off isn't until 1pm", I was like, no it's 12:30, but then I recalled I had seen it was 1pm somewhere. Somewhere and some stage there had been listed the cut off at Blue Lake was 1pm, now this was a mistake and it was adjusted in most places, however I had seen a week earlier it listed as 1pm. Unfortunately I couldn't remember where, one of the ladies said "Hey, I'll head there with ya, come on, lets go", "You can't pace me" I replied, "I just happen to be heading the same way as you at the same time" she said. So off we went. I look back at that part now and am so thankful to her, she chatted away to me about random stuff and it really helped to take my mind of things, I found she worked in my old home town of Wanganui (and yes, I know I'm spelling the city name without the 'h', because I still don't think they should have changed the name to include the 'h'). She asked me if I had hallucinated at all, to which I replied yes and tried to explain what my hallucinations were like. We talked about the poles that I used, and I said how they seemed to slow me down at times, such as when I was on the flat I wouldn't tend to run and would just walk, she said "Then pick up your poles and lets run a bit", so we did.

We approached the final bend before coming out of the bush to Blue Lake, there was Emily and Jon, waiting for me... Emily reached out with her arms open and I hugged her, and bust into tears, I knew it was over, I had a couple of hundred meters left, but I knew my attempt of the 100 Miler was done. As I walked out of the forest around the lake towards to last aid station, I could hear everybody cheering me in to the final aid station. Heart broken, tired and sore, I limped up the final hill thanking people for cheering me in, feeling kind of like a hero, but not. As I arrived, I got the official word "Just wanted to make sure you are aware you are unable to continue on", "What if I took my Bib off, could I carry on then?" I replied, knowing really what the answer would be and that I wouldn't carry on anyway. "You could if you wanted too, but we would think you're an idiot" was his reply.

I sat down and took solace in knowing that at least I wouldn't have to carry on for another 4 hours and that I would be able to finally get some sleep.

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