Looking back, I can’t remember how this race came onto my radar. I ran my first ultra in May 2015 and before that, I’m certain I had made the decision to run Tarawera. With multiple elites such as Tim Olson, Sage Canaday, Anton Krupica, Jorge Maravilla and 2015 Winner and Course Record holder Dylan Bowman running the race previously, I’m sure it was through that notoriety that it became front of mind. I recall looking at the race footage, remembering my previous visits to New Zealand, experiencing those stunning trails I had previously explored, and just knowing it was a race that I needed to do. The course looked absolutely beautiful from start to finish, and something I look for in the races I choose to do. Additionally, after a podium finish in my first ultra, I wanted to test myself against the best in the world, in an elite level race. The timing and location of Tarawera was perfect. It would be an opportunity for friends and family over that side of the world to come and actually watch me race. Being part of the Ultra Trail World Tour, confirmed that Tarawera was not only an elite level race, but one worthy of being included with the likes of Western States and Ultra Trail Mont Blanc. It was a race that inspired me, and a race I was strongly drawn towards from the beginning. It also served as a Western States Qualifying race. I remember staying up past midnight to sign-up for the race the moment it opened, in fear the limited places would sell out and I would miss my chance. Whilst the race did sell out very quickly, my place was confirmed. I was heading to New Zealand.
As 2015 progressed, my love and knowledge of ultra-running only grew. As my calendar of races for 2016 grew to include Transvulcania, Lavaredo and others, Tarawera was always a stand-out event for me. It would be where I toed the line against elite sponsored runners for the first time (all with legit ultra credentials), and measure my skills and heart against these decorated athletes from the ultra-running world. This was a big deal for me. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t competitive and genuinely wanted to see if I could race head to head with the elites, although that has never been my primary reason for running or racing. Getting my Western States qualifier was my ‘no matter what happens’ goal, and as 2015 drew to a close, I had two friends and training partners confirmed to fly over to New Zealand with me to crew and pace me. That in itself was huge. Any big race is tough, and managing all the little things in an ultra can prove challenging the longer the race is. It can make or break a race performance, and very dramatically determine a good day or a bad day racing. Tarawera allowed pacers from the 60km point, and my good friend and main training partner Maggie, was happy to step-up and be my pacer. My other friend Sophie also joined the team, and would be my Crew Chief. Having them both confirmed to support meant the world, and also would give me some additional freedom and flexibility in terms of race preparation and execution. And a HUGE amount of extra support that whilst I never counted on, knew would be of critical importance.
Leading up to Tarawera, I was putting in 100km+ weeks from November, topping out at a 120 mile week over New Years. It was the best training period I had ever had, and my range of movement, mobility and flexibility was the best it had ever been despite the high mileage. Whilst my confidence was growing, Tarawera news updates were confirming which elites would be racing.
Jonas Buud Asics (Sweden) – The IAU (International Association of ultra-running) World 100km champ in 2015, winning in a time of 6:22:35. 2nd at the Worlds in 2014. 7th at the prestigious Comrades (89kms) in 2014 and the only person to win Sweden’s Ultravasan 90km trail race.
Mike Wardian Hoka One One (USA) – 50km treadmill World Record Holder in 2:59:49, one of the most versatile ultra-runners who has raced and had success in multiple ultra-distances including many of the worlds best and toughest races. He has also raced and podiumed previously at Tarawera.
Jason Schlarb Altra Running (USA) – Run Rabbit Run 100 mile winner 2015, 2nd Eiger Trail 100km 2015, 4th at UTMB in 2014, and other notable accolades.
Ford Smith Altra Running (USA) Young gun who impressed with a new CR to win the Black Canyon 100km in 2015 (securing a spot at Western States, which wasn’t his first 100 miler), 3rd at UROC 100km 2015. Ran Western States 2015 in 22:19:18. Placed 8th at the Rocky Raccoon 100 miler in 2014. For a 19 year old, a ton of mileage and experience on his legs.
Cyril Cointre WAA (France) – A French mountain runner that took 5th overall in the 2015 Ultra Trail World Tour, 5th at Transgrancanaria, 4th at Vibram Hong Kong 100km, all in 2015.
Ryan Sandes Salomon, Red Bull (South Africa) – 1st place at Transgrancanaria, 2nd overall Ultra Trail World Tour, 2nd Ultra Trail Mt Fuji, 5th at Western States 100, and has a FKT (fastest known time) in the Grand Drakensberg Traverse, all in 2014.
Yoshikazu Hara (Japan) – 3rd in Tarawera in 2015, and in 2014 won the Soochow 24 hour Ultra, running 285.3kms, the sixth furthest distance run in 24 hours EVER!
Along with the internationals, Vaijin Armstrong and David Byrne from New Zealand and Australia respectively, were both serious contenders holding serious resumés of ultra-running accomplishments. Vailin in particular was a consistent top five finisher at Tarawera, and probably knew the course better than anyone.
The competition was steep, and it was a diverse and deep field. A field of experienced, elite runners. I welcomed the chance to see exactly where I measured up against them, on a stunning course, that would very likely encourage strong racing. Arriving in New Zealand a week out, I got to spend a few days in Auckland with my mum and step-dad, who were coming out to watch my first major race. Both would be helping crew, and as my step-dad grew up minutes from the finish line in Kawerau, his local knowledge would be invaluable.
As Maggie and Sophie arrived the Tuesday before, we drove down from Auckland to Rotorua, the home and starting point of the Tarawera 100. Stopping for multiple coffees along the way (the standard of coffee in New Zealand is HIGH, and I was consuming A LOT), we were amazed at the beautiful landscapes. I had been to New Zealand several times before, and still, was just in awe at how incredible the scenery is. Once we finally arrived, had lunch and were settled, we set out for a run. The Redwoods and start line for the Tarawera 100 were not far away, and only a kilometre in to our run, we hit some stunning trails. Rotorua is known for the geysers and thermal mud pools (and their pungent smell), and we were running past them straight away, as we followed a river, down into the Redwoods. For the first few kms of running, we were constantly stopping. The trails were simply gorgeous, and we just couldn’t do anything but stop and stare in wonder, appreciating the moments and purity that was right there. I was feeling fresh and energised, and kept running off ahead, ripping around the trails, with the biggest smile on my face. I was home. I was where I belonged. I was there, calm, ready and after what felt like such a huge build-up, days away from the biggest race of my life. And I felt so alive, so wild, so free. We ran around the trails, and took turns taking photos, playfully running, and just letting it rip, mindfully flying along and connecting to these magnificent natural spaces. As we were making our way back, we were loosely following a path, and as we climbed higher and higher, we had inevitably taken a wrong turn (I was quite happy pushing the pace and the elevation), but ended up with the most stunning view overlooking Rotorua! Taking some time to enjoy the view, we then went back down, and found our way back home (I may have decided to take a more technical detour at points).
With 10 miles done, and some decent climbing, we ate dinner and began to plan our next day (Wednesday).
Wednesday morning saw us up early, and after a stop for coffee at Relish Coffee (which would become my FAVOURITE cafe, as the staff were fantastic, coffee brilliant, and their breakfast just DIVINE), before we took the very scenic drive to Kawerau, the finish line of the Tarawera 100. Our intentions were to visit Tarawera Falls, and explore the beautiful Tarawera Forest, where the last 40kms of the 100km course runs through. Driving to Kawerau, we drove past some spectacular sights. More of Lake Rotorua, Lake Rotoiti, Lake Rotoehu, Lake Rotoma, and plenty of wild, green landscapes. The entire drive was just beautiful, and we were very thankful that we were able to experience it all.
As we arrived in Kawerau, we stopped to pay for our forestry permits (Tarawera Forest requires permits to enter by vehicle, and is the only way you can get to the Kawerau side of Lake Tarawera, and get close to Tarawera Falls.) After a quick photo with the full-size Tarawera 100 2016 banner and a quick lunch break, we headed into the forest. Within minutes, we were engulfed by the enormity of the wilderness. Whilst there were fire roads throughout, they were lined by huge trees, with mountains in the background. It was just so energising driving through there, and our eyes were wide with wonder and curiosity as we enjoyed our drive to the Tarawera Falls parking area (and the 62km point of the 100km course). On arrival, I began to put on my trail shoes and prepare to run the reverse of what would be my first time on this section of the Tarawera Course. Whilst that was taking place, both Maggie and Sophie were doing what would be a regular addition to our trip, and ‘enjoying nature’. By that, I meant they would be getting chased (whilst screaming loudly) by all manners of wasps and other insects. Interestingly, they left me alone all trip.
We hit the Tarawera trail and began to head up to the falls. As we snaked alongside the Tarawera River, and after about 300 metres of running, I stopped in my tracks. Whilst the current was strong, there was this perfect little area to swim in. Without hesitation, my shoes came off, and i was in the water. It was crystal clear, and a perfect way to refresh and rejuvenate the soul and body. I just loved the raw and pure essence of where we were. Everything was reduced to the most simple of things. Run, swim, and just BE in the wild. Everything that trail running and being in the mountains and on the trails meant to me. After my swim, I put my shoes back on and we ran all the way to the falls. And they were spectacular. Some of the best waterfalls in the Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand, Tarawera Falls were just something else. I needed no encouragement (and Maggie to her credit, strongly suggested that I took great care and DID NOT attempt to go out into the waterfalls) to get right down to the water, and begin scrambling over rocks and tree stumps, to make my way closer to the falls. After playing around right up close, I made my way back and began to get back up to the trail. I then ripped all the way up a winding ascent, taking note of the terrain and mentally preparing myself to be going the reverse in just a few days time. It felt good to be out on the course, getting a feel not only for the terrain, but the deeper connection to the trails and areas that make up the region. From that point, we headed back the way we came, and got back into the car to drive to Lake Tarawera.
We got to the Lake, and were welcomed by a stunning view of Mount Tarawera, clear blue water, and the Tarawera trail winding alongside. After getting a tip on a great swimming spot, we walked about eight minutes around and got to this isolated jetty, where we took time to jump off and swim. From there, we had Mount Tarawera to our front, the Tarawera trail to either side, and the blue expanse of Lake Tarawera around us. I practiced some yoga, and then just sat and soaked up the view, whilst the girls tanned and tried to avoid interactions with ‘nature’. After 15 or so minutes of mindfulness, I began to walk the reverse of the trail, following the pink trail ribbons that had been put out already to mark the Tarawera course for runners on Saturday. I walked about a kilometre in the opposite direction to where I would run during the race, taking time to enjoy the view, get a feel for the course, and just mentally and physically prepare for what would transpire on race day. As we eventually headed back to Rotorua, we were absolutely in love with the area. I already felt such a deep connection to that part of the trail, and had a feeling it would be a meaningful part of the race for me.
The final two days before race day saw general relaxing, lots of coffee, and a range of events organised as part of the ultra. A fun rogaine in and around the geysers and trails on Thursday night, saw us orienteer and run in a team (fellow Aussie Mark whom we just met joined us, and was great at the navigation side) in a fun challenge. We saw more great trails, had a laugh, and bumped into Mike Wardian and Jason Schlarb, which was nice. Our first time actually interacting with the elites. As we would find out, Mike Wardian is one of the friendliest and nicest guys you will ever meet, and the multiple times we saw him over that weekend he was always up for a chat, a laugh and just genuinely happy to be there. Friday was the expo, and registration. After a welcome, full race briefing and elite athlete Q&A, it was time to register. I had to be weighed as part of the medical requirements for 100km runners, pick up my bib, my timing chip, and race pack. After some panic regarding the mandatory kit (due to wet weather forecasts, a mandatory seam-sealed, waterproof jacket became compulsory for all runners, and would result in a disqualification if found without), and what actually was a seam-sealed, jacket, I was confident that my Nike jacket was ok, and I began to finalise everything for the race. We had already had a crew meeting on Thursday, but with my parents there (who would be doing a lot of the driving on the day), we had our final brief and felt confident in all what was going to take place on Saturday. We had an early dinner, and after a phone call to my best friend back in London, I went to bed. After months of planning, preparations and buildup, the Tarawera 100 was only hours away.