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2019 Tarawera Ultra 102km: The Long Walk of Pain

Updated: Feb 28, 2021

I'm not sure where to begin this blog entry, so many different places to start, so if it seems a bit all over the place for the first wee bit I do apologise.

I got reminded last night it's been six weeks since the Tarawera Ultra Marathon, and to be honest, it feels a lot longer than that has passed since then. That could be because so much has happened, or the simple fact I have had a heck of a lot of sleep each night since then.

While this years Tarawera for me was my second time doing it, it was the first time I was going at it on my own, although I had friends out there running the event with me, this year I wasn't going to have a friend run side by side and guide me through it. Signing up for this years event wasn't like the previous year. The first time I signed up for doing 102km as an Ultra (my first Ultra if I'm getting specific), I was waking up nightly for weeks having mini panic attacks thinking to myself "What the hell did I get myself into", this time however I knew exactly what I was getting into... or so I thought.

Training and Injuries

When I signed up to the Tarawera Ultra 102km, I was in the process of training for the Queenstown Marathon, something I've signed up for every year since is started, which happened to also be my first Marathon back in 2014. Training had been going well with the build up to Queenstown, I felt I was on track to finally achieve my target of completing Queenstown in under 5 hours, something that I have always missed, despite having much faster times at some other events. With a week and a half out from Queenstown, I got entered in a 5km corporate challenge, no big deal, it's just a 5km I thought.... little did I know that running that event would take me out of running in the Queenstown Marathon the following week. Just 3km into the run I felt a pain in the left Calf muscle, I took another step, a tighter pain followed by one more step and then I knew I wasn't running any further. Initially I thought it was a cramp in my leg, but I soon realised it wasn't... I hobbled the last 2km to the finish line at a slow pace, crossing the line at 32 minutes 53 seconds, not a bad time considering I walked the last 2km. After a massage and a Physio appointment, I found out I had a tear in my Tibialis Posterior, this took me of training for 4 weeks before I could start to train again.

Finally back to training, I managed to slowly get back into the running, a week and a half later I was at the last run club gathering for the year and I rolled ankle, once again taking me out of action for another week. Boxing day was my first run back after that injury, and wow was it hard to get back into the swing of things after that, but I managed. 2 or 3 weeks later, I was feeling good, training was back on track, I had started getting back into some longer distance, I even managed to get in a 50km day running a 37km with a friend, followed by another 15km later that night as I was feeling good. Unfortunately good things must come to an end... the next week, once again, that ankle which I rolled just before Christmas was just too weak still and I rolled it on a long run coming down a hill. Thankfully it felt OK to run on that day, but as the week went on, I rolled that same ankle 3 more times... it wasn't enough to stop me completely from training, just enough to slow it down. I did however manager to run a 30km race the following weekend, thankfully that was flat so not much chance of rolling the ankle.

By this stage, it wasn't really going to help getting in any bigger runs, I had just 20 days until Tarawera, and I felt despite the injuries, I could still manage a better time than the previous year. Little did I know what race day had in stall for me.

Day 1 - Flight up

I met Bre and Clare (a couple of friends from the Kathmandu Run Club I attend) at the Airport in Christchurch and we flew up to Rotorua, where we picked up the Rental car I organised, I learnt from previous years it's just so much easier having your own vehicle to get around than walking or running everywhere. We then headed down to a Café to meet my friend Vanessa. I met her a few years back when my friend Cam introduced me to her while guiding with Achilles, we have been friends ever since. Initially I had signed up for Tarawera to help Vanessa run it, like Cam did for me the previous year, but after I had signed up she said "Nahhh, you have to run it by yourself", I figured sweet, OK, it wouldn't be as fun by myself, but at least I would know just how well I could go by myself. Turned out that Vanessa and Clare had a mutual friend, so they hit it off rather quickly, we all had some breakfast and then I drove them around some of the areas where we would be running in a couple of days so they could see what it looked like and get an idea on where the aid stations would be.

We then went down to the event center to check in for our races and get our gear like drop bag numbers and whatever items we may have purchased online. I brought a couple of shirts, and turned out that they had forgotten to send out a shirt I had ordered, thankfully they had one left which fitted, so managed to score that before it was sold to someone else. Afterwards I dropped everyone off at their hotels before I went and checked in to my hotel. I've stayed at this hotel before, but unfortunately this year when I booked they only had a family sized room available, a large room with 3 Queen size beds. It was a bit overkill for me, but it provided me plenty of room to spread my gear out over the next couple of days to make sure I could find everything easily.

After check-in, it was off to the Supermarket to get some needed supplies for the coming days, mainly a couple of Powerade's, some Up & Go, Oats, and Banana's, just the usual sort of food I have leading up to an event, I then went back to the hotel, only to find... No Plates, Bowls, or cutlery in my room. You would think that a room that you pay $350 a night for would have that kind of stuff, but no, they expect you to dine in their restaurant.... of which wouldn't be open when I had to leave, bugger... I'd have to sort something out for that.

It was then off again to pick up Vanessa before heading to the Airport to pickup Dee who was arriving on a later flight, she hadn't eaten yet, so we headed down to the Supermarket for her to get some supplies. I used this opportunity to grab a Bowl and Spoon Tupperware container, perfect for me to use in these situations, we finished off our shopping and then it was back to the check in to get Dee or checked-in for the event. Afterwards taking them back to their hotel where they could get some needed sleep.

Day 2 - Powhiri Welcome and meeting some Famous Faces

Friday morning is always a highlight at this event, with the Powhiri being the welcome to the event I wanted to make sure I got there and wanted to make sure the others had the chance to experience the event as well. Bre unfortunately had to miss the event as she was scheduled to start the 20km race (or at least head to the start line) around the time the Powhiri was due to start.

The Powhiri was just as amazing as previous times, the feeling of community and family was felt throughout the entire event. Dee was super excited to meet her running idol Cortney Dauwalter. I spotted Ben Marino, someone that I've followed on Strava for a while and also follows me, we had just never met in person, so went over and had a bit of a chat with him, nice guy, turns out he was doing the 102km as well.

My friends had all popped off to take a look at the geysers so I went off to find them, while I was looing for them I spotted Amanda Basham and Sally McRay, two ultra runners that I've been following for a while, I said hi and introduced myself and put out my hand to shake, Sally said "Nah, bring it in, we hug where I'm from", so I gave both Sally and Amanda both hugs, and then asked if I could grab a photo with them both.

We had race briefing to attend so we made our way down to the Event Center for the race briefing, near the end of it Clare was advised that Bre was near the finish so she popped out while I waited to see if there was any more info that may need to be passed onto her. Turns out there wasn't really much more that would be of benefit to Clare, so I headed out to see Bre come in, unfortunately I was a couple of minutes late. She had finished with a time of about 2:50hrs. I know I would have struggled for that sort of time, mainly due to the climbs.

Day 3 - Race Day

I dropped the car off at Clare's hotel so Bre would have the ability to head around the aid stations, then Clare and I headed off towards the bus to the start line.

We were on the bus, and about 30 minutes in I noticed something amusing, but also something I shouldn't have been surprised about, a large number of people on the bus started to break into eating Bananas, myself included.

We arrived at start line and managed to track down Vanessa and Dee before the race began. we stood there and waited as we had the pre-race send off then the countdown was on again. Before I knew it I was off and running. I started off pretty well, feeling great in fact, after a few minutes, I spotted Clare just ahead of me and called out to her jokingly saying I was chasing her down. It wasn't long before she was gone from my sight.

I arrived at the first aid station and spotted Vanessa just leaving, plenty of time to catch up I figured, 102km is a long way and a lot can change in that time, little did I know what would be coming for the rest of the event.

The 20km mark was when I felt a small cramp kick in. At first I didn't think it it was anything big, just a slight little pulsing in the right calf which didn't want to go away no matter how much salt, fluids, electrolytes and even anti cramp spray I had, nothing seemed to stop it long enough to run.

I smashed my head a couple of times on the trail, about 37.5km in, and 45km (which I think felt close to knocking me out). Note to self, when running a through trailed area with low hanging branches, it pays to either turn your cap around or pay bloody good attention to where you're going.

As the event went on, the cramp continued and even started to expand over my entire body, if I straightened my arm, it would cramp. If I walked up a hill in the wrong way, one leg would cramp stepping up, and the other would cramp if I straightened it to much when lifting up. I so wanted to toss it in early, knowing I had the climb out of Okataina and some stairs coming up near Blue Lake (although this year they seemed a lot smaller) but I kept going determined to finish. I knew my goal of beating last year's time stood no chance, so I figured I would see just how long it would take me.

I left the Okataina aid station with a slow climb up, stopping on occasion trying to avoid the cramp every time there was a large step up to take. I sat down at one point to clear out a shoe which had stuff inside it... while sitting down I noticed my calf muscle pulsing away, so much I was able to capture some of it on video. I got up and continued up the hill, reaching near the top I had a couple of the larger steps. As I climbed up I grabbed a tree to help pull me up, one leg cramped up, then the arm started to cramp, as I got my second leg down that cramped up as well. I gathered myself while I let the cramp dissipate and then continued on back down towards the Miller Rd aid station.

I arrived at Redwoods aid station a little around 4:45am, I messaged Bre to let her know I was heading towards the finish line just 5km away. I continued straight though this aid station as I just wanted to get it over and done with, went around and over a log all of a sudden to be surprised by a camera flash. I remember saying "You could have warned me before taking it", I wasn't in a happy mood at this stage, I was tired and to have the camera flash going off in my face unknowingly did not help. I remember the simple reply the camera guy gave me "You will appreciate it later", was he right... it made for what I think was a humous photo, which I was able to turn into a Meme (see below).

It was on to the finish line from there, little did I realise that it would take me over an hour to make it the last 5km. By this stage the Tailend Charlie (Ash) was with me, he ended up running off ahead for a few minutes. I wasn't bothered, I knew he would come back to me and I knew which way to go. Thankfully he arrived back about 5 minutes later, by this stage my headlamp was starting to fade, it was enough for me to see where I was going, but it was helpful to be able to use the additional light covered by his headlamp.

As I arrived at the start of the Sulphur Flats I realised that time until the finish line cutoff was getting pretty close, I started to pick up my pace as much as I could without the cramp kicking in. I was getting fearful that I wasn't going to make it in time, but Ash reassured me I should be fine.

Finally coming in after 23 hours, 53 minutes and 29 seconds at 5:53am in last place still feels bloody amazing, I had tears of joy and was so happy that my friends who had been out on that trail had gotten out of bed and come down to see me cross the line.

Absolutely everyone out there this weekend made my day, even if it was just sharing the field with everyone putting their heart and soul into getting it done.

Thanks everyone for sharing the field with me.

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