3AM Saturday 6th Feb, my alarm went off. I had slept relatively well, and quickly jumped into the shower to wake myself up, before getting a good amount of porridge into my system, and several cups of tea. I knew I would need the bathroom multiple times before I actually started racing, so I was hoping I would get all that sorted before we left for the start line. As I got ready, I called my best friend in London, whom I had spoken to only hours before when she woke up in London. Hearing her voice, her words of encouragement, her belief in me, her faith in me and feeling all that positive energy, had me calm, and feeling perfectly ready. This was my day. I turned my phone off after that, and didn’t turn it back on until after the race. I had seen so many incredible messages of support from my friends in London, especially the Nike Run Club community. I was feeling extremely grateful for the amount of support I had.
We headed out to the Redwoods Visitors centre, parked the car and made our way to the start line. It was wet, and had been raining all night. It was certainly going to be a wet and muddy day on the course, and the notorious roots along the course would now make those technical sections even harder to run, as the roots became very slippery (so much that your shoes would slide right off them). People were waiting nervously, taking photos, talking and whilst there was 30 or so minutes until the start, I walked right up to the start line, and waited. My strategy months out was to park right up with the elites, and run that first section on their heels. The early sections of the course follow a dark (due to the early start), narrow and tough section of trails through the Redwoods. A 2015 Tarawera competitor had told me prior that as soon as that section was congested, it became painfully slow and dangerous to run. She had broken her ankle there last year, so I heeded her advice and planned to be out in front. With 1000 starters across the three ultra distances on offer, I had to get out in front of the masses. As the start time neared, people began to form behind the start. Most shy’ed away from the front, whilst I confidently held my ground. As the elites arrived, the Ultra Trail World Tour media were out in force, as were many others. 10 minutes before the start, I took my jacket off and placed it in my pack. It was warm, despite the rain, and I would be raising my temperature soon enough.
Ryan Sandes was on my left shoulder, Mike Wardian slightly in front, with Ford Smith directly to my right, followed by Jason Schlarb, and Jonas Budd. Female Course Record Holder Ruby Muir was behind me, happy to keep a low profile. Two minutes before the start, a Maori performance set the scene for the day. And before I knew it, we were 10 seconds away.
As the race officially started, I clicked on my Suunto, and charged off right behind Wardian. I was in the top five for the first 100 metres or so, and as we found a nice rhythm, there were about 20 of us all together spread across about 10 metres or so. The pace was brisk, but it felt comfortable. As my watch clicked over to 1km, the pack had spread out a bit more, with that group of 20 or so there. Jonas, Vaijin and Aussie David Byrne were in the front, with Jason, Mike, myself and a few others in the middle, and some more including Cyril right on our heels. Our headlamps were lighting our way, as we navigated the narrow trails through the Redwoods. We were moving well, and I was surprised that not only was I feeling so comfortable with the elites (comfortable meaning I didn’t feel the pace exceeded what I felt comfortable running that early in the race), and that there didn’t seem to be many other runners with us. Knowing there was a 60km race, and a relay, I had expected a good bunch of other runners to be up the front, of which would make the trails harder to navigate. For whatever reason, it was just this front group. There was a little banter, a few slips in the very muddy trails, but the pace remained sharp, even as the first hills made their presence known. Everyone was running them, and as we were getting close to the 10km point, very few ups had seen any power-hiking. I had decided to keep my headlamp on me until I saw my crew at the first aid station (16kms), and was glad I didn’t drop it in the pre-arranged drop box at 4kms. The weather had meant it was far more overcast, so the deep sections in the Redwoods right up to 10kms were still very hard to see, and would mean a poor step to send you at the very least, straight into the mud. The downhills were slippery enough, and it would be something every runner would have to deal with most of the day. As we hit the 10km point, there was really only about 200 metres gap from myself and the leaders. I still felt comfortable with the pace, and whilst I was right up there, I made the decision to dial the pace back, knowing that I had over 90kms left to run, and that my strategy was never to try and stick with them the entire race. Whilst I respected the elites had far more experience and time on their feet than me, (as well as legit results in big races) I did not fear running with them. I relished those first 10kms, and felt it was a smart decision to pull back the pace, settle in, and run MY race.
I would leap-frog Ruby Muir (leading the women quite substantially) right up to the first aid station, and only ran with one or two other runners. As we neared the first aid station, we passed the first section of the course that was open for spectators. The first side of Blue Lake (Lake Tikitapu) was filled with spectators, and as we ran right into the open green field, I felt something funny on my leg. Looking down, I could see my timing chip (which was on a velcro strap, on my ankle) had come undone. I noticed it was poor when I originally received it, but maybe naively did not take any heed. I had to stop and put it back on, and noticing how loose it was, I had zero confidence it would stay on for the rest of the day. Being fearful of it flying off and getting lost (and meaning my tracking data would be lost), I made the very quick decision to shove it right down into my sock. Hindsight would have had me grab it and get the the aid station and tie it to my shoe laces, but I was in race mode, and just adapted as best I could. Heading back into the trails, I ripped around, passing Ruby Muir again, and as I started making my way out of the trails to run along the road and down into the Blue Lake Aid Station, I was warned by a marshall that all runners would be having their mandatory jacket checked just before the aid station. As I came out, I pulled my jacket out, and the girl inspecting it couldn’t see the seams. Ruby had run without a pack, and her jacket was around her waist, so she was in and out in a flash. After some messing around, the lead marshall gave me the all clear, and whilst I was holding my pack, shoving my jacket back in, and then putting it back on, I came flying around into the aid station. The noise was loud, as I was only six minutes of the lead group, and since then only a handful of runners had come through. I didn’t know at the time, but I hit Blue Lake in I think 7th place (I was definitely top 10) .
Running into the aid station, I heard my crew yelling at me and I ran over to them. They were ready with new bottles for me, filled with Tailwind, my go-to nutrition for the day. I had used Tailwind before, and that would be my primary source of calories and nutrition for the day, and in all my bottles. As I passed Sophie my empty bottle, I said I wanted to change socks, as I quoted “I have half of Middle Earth in my shoes”. I had packed extra socks despite saying I had never changed them in a race before and never planned to. But because the conditions were so muddy and wet, by16kms my legs were covered in mud and grit, and I had run shin deep through puddles and mud. I sat down and with Maggie’s help took off my shoes, put on fresh socks, and then was ready to go. My crew were all excited to see me, and were stoked that I was doing so well so early. I felt good, and after a very brief chat about the next section, I was off. I grabbed some ginger ale from the aid station , ate some watermelon and was out of Blue Lake about 90 seconds after arriving. I was so impressed with my crew, and thought that it was a good sign for the rest of the day. Time to work.
I charged back out into the trails, as the marshall directing us across the road into the forest warned me the trails were muddy and slippery. Noted. But as I had expected. I found a rhythm and thus far had felt really good running. I knew the Millar Road Aid Station was at 22kms, but I wouldn’t see my crew until the Lake Okataina Aid Station at 39kms. I had taken two bottles this time (I started with one and originally planned to run with just one) as I knew it would be a long stretch. I had my Ultimate Direction pack to carry the mandatory jacket, so I thought I would make use of the extra help to carry the second bottle. I ran pretty consistently through that section leading up to Millar Road, and despite the climbs and winding trails, wasn’t having any major issues with the wet and muddy conditions.
I hit Millar Road just as Ruby Muir had gone through, filled a now empty bottle with water, and was straight out after dunking my head in water a few times. Despite it being quite wet, it was warm and humid. At times I felt like I was running through Jurassic Park. Running from Millar Road saw lots of gullies, with very narrow and uneven footing. As with most of the race, I was constantly having to be mindful of every single step, as a wrong step could easily become a nasty fall, rolled ankle, or worse. Running at pace through the downhills required a lot of trust in myself, and some bravery. There were some beautiful views of Lake Okataina, which helped tick the miles along. As I hit 30kms, my GPS watch told me I had been running for 2 hours 40 minutes. Well within my expected times, but still very early in a long and tough race. There were some big climbs and some tricky sections of running, leading up to the Okataina Aid Station, and as I got closer to the aid station, I could hear the noise of the crowd as I began bombing down this zig-zag section of the trail, before popping right out of the trail onto the bitumen, where the aid station was setup. I ran over to my crew, and with the same precision as the first change, changed bottles, got some info on the lead pack, info on what to expect next, and then in a similar time frame, I was off. I clicked over the marathon distance in approximately four hours, with 60kms still to run. The good news was the next time I would see my crew, Maggie would be joining me to pace me for 10kms. I just had to make sure I got to Tarawera Falls in good shape, and ready to run hard. Whilst that was in my mind, I also knew I still had to keep consistently hitting good splits right up to the Falls.
As I headed out of the aid station, I was feeling good. I knew the next section would be tough and depending on how I got through it, would be a determining factor in how well I ran from the Falls. As soon as I began running, I knew this section would test me. The next 10kms or so were my hardest of the entire race. They hurt, more emotionally than anything else. There were some very technical sections along this stretch. Narrow trails, big drops off the side, and covered in big roots and uneven sections throughout. It was grinding, and whilst also physically challenging, I found it mentally draining to focus, especially with the constant undulation and intensity I had to give in an effort to keep a competitive pace. I have always had a decent power-hiking pace and I was using that well in all sections of the course. It came in handy here. Whilst the uphills were fine, it was the downs that did the damage. Winding paths, roots everywhere and treacherous running even in the dry. Add the wet conditions and mud, and it was really hard getting traction. I was pushing pretty hard at one point, and coming down one of my feet caught a root, and I went flying into the mud. I was fine, just covered in filth. I got up, took a deep breath, and cracked on. About 10 minutes later, I caught a toe on a root and went flying again. This time I hit the ground harder, grazed my elbow and knee, knocked the wind out of myself, and yet again, looked like I was bathing in mud. I had about 4kms until the next aid station, and my mantra from there become ‘chill’. Chill, take this easier, watch my feet, don’t push the pace unless you feel comfortable, and just look after yourself until Humphries Bay. Take a few extra minutes at the aid station, put yourself back together and get on with it. You fell, its cosmetic and mental only, so get it together, and get moving. So I did. I stayed consistent, but was more mindful of just easing back a bit, until I had found my rhythm. After catching up to several runners, I passed a relay runner who had totally gassed himself trying to race this section, and another 100km runner who was suffering badly and had decided to drop at the next aid station. I passed them, and that reminded me that the race was still young, I was on target, running how I had planned, and that whilst this section was tough, EVERY SINGLE PERSON was going to have challenges that day. The leaders would be suffering too, and once I had that context framed in my head, I was moving. I hit Humphries Bay Aid Station, and as I promised myself, took time there to eat a bunch of fruit, drink some Coke, dunk my head in water again, take 15 or so seconds to prepare myself, and then just go. As I screamed up the ascent out of there, I felt stronger and knew I was back in the game.
I was filled with joy as I started to run around Lake Tarawera, heading to the Tarawera Outlet Aid Station (just past the jetty I was swimming off a few days earlier). I knew Lake Tarawera would be my rallying point, and it was. Whilst the trails were still technical and challenging, I was running better and with more aplomb. I was moving steadily, and with the confidence that I knew a good section of that part of the course, and that as soon as I hit the Outlet, I would be running right into Tarawera Falls. I really enjoyed the final section along Lake Tarawera, and in reflection, that 7kms or so along Lake Tarawera to Tarawera Falls, was my favourite of the entire race. The trail is incredible, and with Lake Tarawera and Mount Tarawera in sight, It remains one of my favourite places in New Zealand, and the world. I hit the Outlet Aid Station, quickly re-fuelled and was straight out. As I was leaving, Fiona Hayvice (the first female runner I had seen since Ruby back at Blue Lake, who wasn’t a relay runner) got on the trail in front of me, as did another runner (I think he was a 60km runner, nearing his finish at Tarawera Falls). It was a 5km section until Tarawera Falls Aid Station, with decent running, winding trails, stairs, and a section that followed the Tarawera River all the way down. With Fiona in the lead, the three of us ran HARD. We chatted a bit, and just relentlessly ran every single section as hard as we could. Ascents didn’t stop us, and we stuck together the entire way, running as a team, and with a sense of camaraderie that was unspoken, but strong. Fiona would go on to win the 100km, and it was an absolute honour and pleasure to run with her for that section. Speaking to her post-race, she had a pretty lonely time out there much like I did (lonely as we had been running mostly by ourselves for over 50kms), and her interview at the awards ceremony actually thanked us for that sharing that section which became a turning point for her race, and deserving victory. We hit Tarawera Falls, and I knew it was only a short time now until I saw my crew, and picked up Maggie. I had run that entire section on Wednesday, so had no problem flying right into the aid station.
As I hit the aid station, I angled right to head down the 85km/100km chute (and not 60km finishers chute). I saw my crew, and noted Maggie was up the road in the designated pacer pen, ready to go. I got a quick photo with my Aunty Yvonne (both her husband Barry and herself have worked at the Falls Aid Station since the race first started), before going up to Maggie. I had intended to do a sock change again, but the aid station setup didn’t make it viable. I chatted to Maggie as we power-walked out of the aid station. As we were about to start running, I decided I needed to sort my shoes out. They were full of grit and dirt and whilst I made the call to not change my socks based on the aid station layout, I knew if I didn’t do something then, it would become a bigger issue. Once that was done, we cracked on. She was ready to run hard, and my instructions leading up to the race were to push me, don’t let me complain, and just be relentless. I was in good shape, feeling strong, but also starting to feel the burn from 60kms of hard running. I had passed the furthest distance I had ever raced (56kms), and thus was in a brand new space. We ran consistently, power-hiking in places to maximise efficiency. She was brilliant as a pacer, as she kept pushing me to run, to push harder, and really did her best to ensure I was giving my all. We chatted a bit, and made good time. As we came up to the Titoki Aid Station, I would be leaving her there, for her to pick me up again at 92kms. We got to Titoki FAST, and beat Sophie and my parents (we later found out that aid station was very hard to find, and many crew/supporters couldn’t find it). As I was preparing to head out, they arrived, and sent me off. The next time I would see them would be after 20kms of running, through a notoriously gruelling section. Maggie was ready to bring me home, and told me to get moving. As I cracked on, I felt consistent with the pace, and made good time to Awaroa. Awaroa is famous for an out and back section, named the Loop of Despair. As I hit the aid station for my first time, I was quite jovial as the aid station volunteers were just awesome and full of energy (ALL aid stations were incredible, but this one stood out for some reason). As I headed up for the 5km loop, the sky opened up and it just began to dump the rain. I had been wet most of the day anyway, so I was pretty apathetic by that stage. I grinded up the fire roads, gaining elevation and wondering what the Loop of Despair had in store for me. After about a km, the course markings directed me up into this monster hill, which was completely off trail. I followed the course markers, winding and moving through what was barely a path, as the elevation rose steeply. I felt I was power-hiking at a decent pace, but the nature of the terrain made any consistently hard. After what felt like forever, I popped out onto a fire road and began my return to Awaroa. I ripped down the road, overtaking two runners looking very despondent, feeling the intensity of the aptly named Loop of Despair. As I hit Awaroa, I found out that Jonas Buud had won the race. I kept moving from there, knowing I had to keep pushing right until the end. I ran and power-hiked quite a long section of rolling fire roads, and at one point could see for what looked like kms behind me. And there wasn’t a sole in sight, giving me confidence. At Awaroa they told me I was definitely running in the top 20, and that I looked good. Which was a nice boost. As the day had progressed, mobile phone signal had gone, and both my crew and I had been too focused on my race to worry about where I was placing. As I was running down to Fisherman’s Bridge Aid Station, a passing marshall vehicle told me there was a tree down on the road ahead, and to be aware. He said they had people dealing with it, but it would be there when I got there in 700 metres or so. It was still throwing down rain, and whilst I wasn’t cold, I had decided to put my jacket on. I kept running, and was mulling over the tree situation wondering how bad it was, and then I saw it. A massive tree covered the road, and there were two volunteers trying to saw it down (a chainsaw was en route). There was no way around it, so at 80kms of running, I was there trying to jump, climb, and manoeuvre over this monster of a tree. My legs would cramp as I bent them into a climbing position (they were totally fine with any running based movements), and whilst my hips felt pretty decent running, they weren’t impressed with me trying to bound and clamber over the tree. It took me about 30 seconds to get around it, whilst my body was screaming at me for putting it under a completely different kind of stress to the last 10 hours. I got past it, and cranked on down the road, took a left turn into the forest, and then came up across this small bridge, running smack bang into Fisherman’s Bridge Aid Station, much to my surprise (every aid station prior had signs 200 metres out with advanced warning/motivation). I grabbed my bottle replacements, told my crew I would see them at the finish, and we took off. Maggie told me that we weren’t stopping, and it was time to GO. I was hurting by that stage, with 92kms on my legs, and we left the aid station right as my GPS watch clicked over to 10 hours. Game time. I wasn’t very communicative by that stage, taking more of the Timmy Olson approach with grunts and more animalistic sounds. Maggie was pushing me hard, whilst relaying messages that had come through the day from people back in London. My ankle timing band in my sock had been a constant pain the entire race, grinding against my ankle bone, and mixed with all the grit, grating my skin around the joint. It was pretty painful by that stage, and I felt like the under-soles of my feet were getting ripped up by the grit and rocks in my shoe. I was completely drenched, and running close to empty. But we ran. Maggie was amazing, and pushed me to go as hard as I could. We hit the final aid station with a 23 minute 5km split. We now had 5kms to go, and she said we stop when we are done, not before. We kept on running, and whilst I had to occasionally stop to adjust the ankle strap, I pushed on. I was running on fumes, my legs were cooked, and I was barely speaking. But I looked strong, had plenty of energy, and just was feeling the effects of pushing hard for 95kms. We kept going, passing an 85km runner, before heading into a final forrest trail section. As we came out of that, we were still pushing hard. A runner passed us, and as I looked at his bib, I then looked down at mine. With 3kms or so to go, a 100km runner was passing me. FUCK. THAT. I swore in my head, and then went for it. I overtook Maggie, and she knew that seeing him pass me had given me the extra juice I needed to crank out. We blazed that runner, leaving him broken mentally by our surge, flew over the Tarawera River, and hit the shoreline on the Kawerau side. We were at the edge of a park, and 2kms further was the finish. We kept on running hard, Maggie pushing me tirelessly, with me running with everything I had. I pushed, pushed and pushed, and finally the end came in sight. With 500 metres to go, I put on the afterburners and gave it everything to the end. 400, 300, 200, 100; I saw my mum, heard the crowd, saw the clock, and just hammered the final steps, rain streaming around me, until I finally finished. I took a few steps, stopped my watch, and then walked over to where my parents and Sophie were. I rested both my hands on the railing, and dropped my head with relief. I was exhausted. Relieved. And absolutely thrilled with my finish.
As my aunt and uncle’s house was around the corner, and it was BUCKETING down with rain, we made the smart call to head back there to get dry, and clean. After a hot shower, I felt brand new. I sat with my legs up on the couch, chatted to the girls and my family, and started trying to process the whole day. I felt fine physically, other than what I would call normal aches and pains. I had no injuries, minus some cuts and scratches from my fall. All superficial. I had completed my first 100km race, raced against some of the best in the world, and run what the Race Director would officially call the hardest Tarawera 100 to date, based on the weather and subsequent course conditions.
10 hours, 52 minutes, 32 seconds.
Over 2,700 metres of elevation
Splits per Tarawera timing
16.4km – 1:25:29
39.4km – 3:42:43
62.7km – 6:34:55
72.2km – 7:37:36
84.4km – 8:44:33
92.9km – 9:58:09
102.8km – 10:52:32
Tarawera 100 will be forever burnt into my soul. It was the hardest race I have ever done. It is the only race that I have raced with everything I had, giving it my ALL. I am immensely proud of my race, how I planned, prepared, and ran. Based on the conditions of the day, I ran a smart and hard race, and I don’t believe I could have run it any better. I learnt a LOT about myself as a runner, and as a person. I have the confidence that whilst I have a huge amount of work still to do (and I will ALWAYS be improving and seeking growth), that I have the capacity to compete with the best runners in the world. To what capacity and means, that remains to be seen. I have the knowledge that I can push my body far beyond what I thought capable. I know that I love ultra-running, and the entire process from that first decision to toe the line at a race, to the finish. In the short time I have been running ultras, I have very diligently sought knowledge and experience, and packaged it together to get me to where I am now. Just over 18 months ago, I had never ran more than 10km. I have been self-coached since that day, and this is how far I have come. Whilst my training and growth is very young, I feel I am on the right track. Completing Tarawera is still surreal. It is far more than just a race. The trails and scenery were just spectacular. The support crews, volunteers, race officials and every single person involved, were just amazing. I have such a strong connection to this race, for a number of reasons, and it really touches my heart.
I am incredibly grateful and thankful to Sophie Adams, and Maggie Dempsey. You both committed to this journey with me, and that entire week in New Zealand, were incredibly selfless. Race day, it was all about me, and you both were phenomenal. Thank You Sophie for standing around for over 10 hours, to only see me for not even a total of five minutes the entire day, whilst you catered for my every need. Maggie, thank you for pushing me. Thank you for not letting me stop, for not letting me slow down, and for being a relentless force of nature that had me running splits I shouldn’t have been physically capable of at those latter points in the race. Thank you for joining me on the trails, for your positivity, for your belief in me, and for just sharing 20kms of running (and some suffering) with me. You both played such a huge part in my success, and that work started months and months ago. Thank you for everything, we share this success, and I would not have been able to do it without you.
To my parents, thank you for flying over to watch me race. For not freaking out (too much) when I said I was going to run 100kms. For wanting to be involved on race day, and for your invaluable contribution by crewing me. Thank you for your positivity, support and being there for the race of my life. It means the world.
To those that helped me specifically train for this race. Tara Woolnough, Bec Watson, Stephanie Kitchen, Amelia Ritchie, Cat Simpson and Cat Attfield; THANK YOU. I put in a ridiculous amount of mileage, and it was the pleasure of your company that made those big weeks far more manageable. You’re support both on the runs, and throughout my journey, remains a crucial part of my success.
To all my other friends, family and everyone at NRC London that sent me well wishes. Thank you all for the encouragement, belief, support, both in the lead-up, and over the race weekend. I was UTTERLY OVERWHELMED with the huge amount of positive messages via Facebook, Instagram, and in personal messages to me on my phone and via Maggie and Sophie on race day. The big messages, and the little ones, all added up and meant I knew I had an army of support behind me. I am incredibly thankful, grateful and privileged to have such a wonderful group of people in my life.
To Paul, and everyone at both Tarawera and the Ultra Trail World Tour. Thank you for putting on such a world class event, and allowing runners like myself the opportunity to run on such spectacular trails, and with such an incredible atmosphere.
To EVERY SINGLE volunteer, marshall, official, and person that played a role in facilitating the event. Thank you. We COULD NOT have run it without you.
To all the runners. Thank you for being part of such a memorable event, and for sharing the trails with me.
– Nike singlet, shorts and jacket
– Nike Kiger 3 shoes, with Nike Elite Cushioned Quarter socks. My feet were wet the entire race, with tons of mud and dirt in my socks and shoes. I changed my socks once for convenience, and at the end of the race, I had ZERO issues with my feet. No blisters, black toe-nails, or any form of injury, infection, or issue.
Fuelled all day by Tailwind Nutrition. I used a variety of flavours, with the caffeinated flavour post 60kms. No issues with cramps, low energy, stomach issues etc. Tailwind in my bottles allowed me to run my race, and not worry about nutrition. It was the foundation of my consistent energy levels and not once did I have to worry about that side of my race. My third time in an ultra using tailwind, and I will absoutely use it again.
Blueberries, strawberries, grapes, salted crisps, ginger ale, and Coke from the aid stations.
Thank you for taking the time to read this!