It’s our third outing to Rotorua for the Tarawera Ultra Marathon, and I can (almost) safely say – don’t do the even numbered years! The weather is always miserable, and raining which means the course turns into a tougher-mudder in these years. 🙂 This year, again, saw a gorgeous, sunny day with little wind. It was likely a bit on the hot side for most, but being in the bush means you are mostly protected from the sun. And I’m the last person to complain about heat.
We left Palmy on Thursday afternoon for the trip to Rotorua. Staying out of town (Golden Springs) meant we had to make a forty minute trip each time we had to go into Rotorua, which was fine, as the accommodation was quite reasonably priced. On Friday morning we drove through to register (sadly the free Buff is no longer part of the deal) and attend the elites Q&A.
Since our last running of the event, not only has the venue changed from the Redwood Forest to The Energy Events Centre, but also the courses itself changed – they now also run in the opposite direction back towards town, meaning all distances finishes in Rotorua at the Government Gardens. Other events by the same organisers that used to be later in the year were merged with this one, and a few of the previous distances of the total Tarawera offering were dropped (namely the 42.2km, 60km and 85km). What remained was consolidated and refined before the whole caboodle was sold off to the Ironman group, which ironically is owned by a very wealthy Chinese businessman. And here government has put a ban on the Chinese owning stand-alone property in NZ, and everyone is up in arms about the Chinese “taking over”, but selling off this iconic event is predominately met with positive acceptance/endorcement from most participants (judged by FB comments on the matter).
The elites Q&A is always a highlight of the event and it was great to experience a little bit of Courtney Dauwalter, Camille Herron, Sally McRae, Ryan Sandes, Jeff Browning and the likes in person.
Back at the lodge, we cooked up a storm, had a couple of ciders and retired to bed.
The 50km event has an unusual format. All participants (in batches of 40) have to take a bus from the Energy Events Centre to Lake Tarawera, from where they are boated across to Isthmus for the start of the event. However, since more than 700 runners and walkers have to make this commute, the race also started in waves. So each time a batch of runners gets dropped off, they start their event. The waves were meant to start at 15 minutes intervals, and all participants had to book a slot prior to the event. Little did that help us. We were booked into the 8am wave, meaning we were scheduled to catch the bus at 8am, drive to the lake (about 20 minutes) and then get onto a boat for the trip across the lake. However, a couple of jet boats (12 people) and a water taxi (38 people) that takes up to 40 minutes (according to Paul Charteris at race briefing) to get to the landing, meant that very early on, they’d already fallen way behind schedule. What is more, I’m aware of quite a few runners who were booked into later waves, but were allowed onto the bus with earlier starters, despite the organisers making it clear that you HAVE to stick to the wave you have booked. Surely that also added to the congestion and the waves got spread out further and further. Maybe there were other reasons for falling behind other than the slow boat, but just the simple sum of this equation doesn’t add up.
We arrived at the conference centre bright and early (7:20am), only to be told that we’d have to wait at least an hour as the boats were behind schedule. At about 9am we finally got onto the bus, and were dropped at the lake, only to wait another hour for a boat ride. The start on the other side (at 10:30?), was basically a dash off the jetty, either across the mats to start your run, or to the toilets, while all along race briefing was taking place in the background. There was absolutely no sense or feeling of a “start” as such and everyone just got going when they so wished. Which meant the competitive end of the field had no idea where they were in the field. Weird, eh?
After about 100 metres, a few runners from our group that started roughly together were all going in different directions (I though those who didn’t want to wait for the loos were searching for a spot to make a little nervous one (as Paul would say)) when supporters shouted from behind “it’s straight ahead! go right!”. Confused much? Someone found the path, and despite it all being a bit of a circus up to that point, we were off on a beautiful day.
The trail straddles Lake Tarawera until we reached the first aid station (Buried Village) at 15.6km, near where we were dropped off to catch the boat. It was located on the grounds of a beautiful private lodge which obviously holds a lot of history. A well stocked aid station offering a variety of snacks, and I couldn’t get enough of the orange wedges. It even included a Devonshire high-tea with table, chairs, flowery cups, and cream scones. What a treat! The only stretch of sealed road runs from the aid station along Tarawera Road until we turned back onto the trails at Lake Tikitapu (Blue Lake). From there, we followed the trails to the top carpark at Blue Lake. Starting on the path the runs around Blue Lake, we soon turned left off onto a path the follows Lake Rotokakahi (Green Lake). The second aid station was placed at 29.7km.
We followed the path that ran halfway around Green Lake, before making another little loop and back again toward Blue Lake. Unlike our previous runs of the event, we only went around half of Blue Lake before reaching the third aid station at 36.5km. It was again quite festive and the volunteers obviously put in a lot of effort to make it a jolly good stop. This is also where we got our drop-bag for more sustenance. We might have wasted more time than necessary at these aid stations, but we knew it was going to be a long day out anyway. Since I’ve last complained about our lack of training, we haven’t been able to rectify the problem and are still slogging on, trying to make at least about 30km per week. Which is just about enough to get you through a half marathon, not an ultra!
From Blue Lake we followed a dirt forestry road that roughly ran parallel to Tarawera Road. Some cars were hooting and shouting from a distance, encouraging runners, while some mountain bikers thought they were very funny making doughnuts right in front of us kicking up a hell of a lot of dust. A fellow participant gave Gerry one look and decided he looked strong enough to run up ahead and go tell them off. 😀
When we finally reached the Redwood Forest, I knew that we would make it in daylight and was glad we didn’t collect our headlamps at 30km (where we did the sums and figured we should be able to make it). The fourth aid station was under cover in The Redwood Forest and again very festive, and leaving it we knew the last five kilometres are all flat. We meandered out of Redwood Forest and through the active thermal Puarenga Park next to the stream by the same name to get back to the Government Gardens. Somewhat similar to Ring of Fire, the finish was again an inside affair, this time inside the Energy Events Centre. I was very surprised and utterly relieved to have made it through the 50km on the dismal amount of training we’ve done the past year.
The trails are just beautiful. It is a lovely run and for the most part really runable. A good few climbs (+1833 and -1865 metres total elevation) and a serious scramble downhill in one spot which meant we had ample walking opportunity. This particular downhill would be an absolute nightmare if it was raining and muddy. With the trails all bone dry, it was actually a dusty run and it’s hard to believe that these same paths can turn into mudfest as was the case last year.
We waited around to see Jeff Browning win the 100 miler, breaking the record by 3 hours, before making the trip back home for some tea and a cider.
Sunday morning we drove back to the conference centre for the prize-giving, followed by lunch in town, before walking up the course to meet Dave who was doing his first 100 mile event. He looked quite strong and was well on his way to finish within the cut-off time, despite having endured a nasty fall and having been on the move for the biggest part of 36 hours non-stop. That’s just amazing, and I can’t imagine how tired he must have been even though he seemed perfectly fine.
Back at our motel, we went straight for the warm stream which ran through the property, placed some chairs downstream from a small waterfall and parked there for an hour with bubbly in one hand, and some crackers in the other while the warm, mineral water was getting to work to soothe our sore muscles.