New Zealand Trail Running: Tarawera Ultramarathon 50k

18th of February

Whenever I can, I use a chance to run an interesting race while I’m in a different country. Right now, we’re in Auckland, New Zealand, for a few months, so I naturally have a few events planned. The first one is now history.

Tarawera

Paradise, right?
Paradise, right?

It’s a lake in the vicinity of the city of Rotorua, which is known for its rather unusual geothermal activities. There’s a volcano in the area which is probably part of the reason it smells like sulfur everywhere and steam is coming out of the earth at random places throughout the town.

It’s really weird
It’s really weird

The people of Rotorua utilized this and built a tourist attraction around it, for example baths that are naturally heated by these thermal pockets. And for a few years now, there’s an ultramarathon in the area as well. The length of the run varied almost every year, but in 2019 they offered four different options:

  1. 20 km
  2. 50 km
  3. 102 km 
  4. 100 miles (that’s 161 km)

While the 20 km and 100 miles races are out of the question for me, I found myself pondering over the decision between 50 and 102 kilometers. Would I already have it in me to do the 100? My longest run ever was 74 kilometers and I had planned on doing the infamous Biel 100 in June of this year, to have some more time to train.

After a few minutes, I made up my mind. Keep it real. 50k it is. Hard enough.

Making it to Rotorua in time for the bib number pickup on Friday before Saturday’s race turned out to be a challenge in itself, as our oldest, Julie, goes to school here, and school is until 3 PM. Driving to Rotorua from the North Shore of Auckland takes a good 3 hours, and the venue would close at 7. Close call, taking into account the Friday afternoon traffic and handling four kids in a rental car on a long drive. 

We made it, though. After everyone had already been here.
We made it, though. After everyone had already been here.
This finish line setup left an impression of being quite a big event.
This finish line setup left an impression of being quite a big event.

Most running events in New Zealand are small. That’s mainly due to the remoteness of the country and low number of citizens, which is just under 5 million at the moment. Still, this race surprised me with a number of well-known brand sponsors during the registration. Also, it’s advertised as a UTMB and WSER qualifier. If you’re not into the ultra lingo, that’s the “Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc” and the “Western States 100”, respectively. Both are probably in the Top 5 of the world’s most known ultra races, and therefore not easy to get into. You have to qualify for them first. In addition to that, this Tarawera ultra is a member of the Ultra Trail World Series. Serious business. 

That’s a map of tomorrow’s course.
That’s a map of tomorrow’s course.

After collecting all the info I needed, we drove over to our AirBnB, which would be the home of a nice lady from Fiji who is sub-letting her apartment while she also lives in it. Merewai was a lovely grandma who went out of her way to make it comfortable for the six of us. She even made us breakfast in the morning, such a nice gesture! 

Day of the Race

While the 100 mile race participants would have to get up very early for their 4 AM start (including a Maori “haka” ceremony), the 100 kilometer racers two hours later at 6, most of us lazy 50k folks were allowed to sleep in. They had divided us into waves of 40 each, supposed to leave with a shuttle bus to the start every 15 minutes. 

The idea behind this was to prevent congestions on the narrow single trail of the race course. 

There were buses leaving from 6 AM to noon, making it 24 starting waves of 40 people, or the quite huge number of 960 participants, maximum. That’s a lot for a trail ultra. 

It was the first year in which they offered this very popular 50k option, and that led to a bit of a problem. The reason for this was also a bit unusual, as it’s the special kind of transportation to the starting line. Not only would we have to get on a shuttle bus for 20 minutes, but then another special 20 minute boat ride across lake Tarawera would follow. And there weren’t as many and as big boats as there were buses.

I was put into a starting wave that was supposed to leave with a bus at 9:45 AM in order to start the race at 10:45. But it took another hour until I and my nervous fellow runners were leaving. 

Time for some coffee.
Time for some coffee.
Getting dropped at the lake had us wait in the 25 degree sun for another 20 minutes.
Getting dropped at the lake had us wait in the 25 degree sun for another 20 minutes.
But that boat ride was worth it!
But that boat ride was worth it!

They got jet boats for us, capable of high speeds and crazy maneuvering. Lots of fun! The sweat from today’s heat ran down my forehead and transported the sunscreen into my eyes, rendering me unable to enjoy the visuals of the scenery, unfortunately. 

Here we are on the other side of the lake.
Here we are on the other side of the lake.

There was just a single pier, a small hut, and a small PA to make the volunteer announcer be heard. She gave us some instructions and told us that we could start the race at any point from now on. There were timing mats that took our starting time. Starting whenever I felt like it. Cool!

Final moments before a 50k trail run with 1,800 meters of vertical gain.
Final moments before a 50k trail run with 1,800 meters of vertical gain.

Right away, we’re on these incredibly narrow single trails. Starting with just about 40 others made it easy to do. You’d still have to watch carefully for every single step. I’m not used to trail running, so this is quite a challenge to me. I find it very enjoyable, though. You get into a focussed flow that feels even more like a meditative state than street running does.

And up, and down.
And up, and down.

The heart-rate moves up immediately. The pace is slow, although I put in lots of energy. That’s the downside. I have to remember that it’s not about the finishing time today, it’s about the experience of the nature and the course. I like it, but it’s different. There’s no one cheering, obviously, but all other runners that pass me or get passed by me are friendly and enjoy a tiny chat. It doesn’t feel lonely. 

Up the steps.
Up the steps.

From time to time I run together with someone roughly my pace, but you can’t really talk because of the nature of the challenge at hand and the fact that you can’t run next to each other.

Beautiful. Also, the trees above prevent sunburn!
Beautiful. Also, the trees above prevent sunburn!

At a few points, the trail is a bit broken, or maybe just not perfectly maintained, which makes it rather dangerous. Steep falls to either side were easily possible. Sometimes we have to climb over fallen trees or crouch underneath some. It feels a bit like an obstacle run, just without the idiot party people filling up the course. 

Up some more steps, please!
Up some more steps, please!

Even though I feel quite slow, I make good progress. Even though some stretches have rather steep inclines, I manage to keep my walking to a minimum. It’s hard, and I am sure my heart-rate jumping between 190 on the uphills and 120 on the downhills will drain me more quickly. Some parts are just so steep, there’s no way to get around an intense bpm if you would still like to keep moving at any pace at all.

I notice that I’m rarely overtaken by others. It seems that I pass by a lot more people. A good sign. I’m in a fit state and keep doing well so far.

This first part of the course was used for the 100 mile race runners as well. From time to time a few of these crazy folks came towards us, visibly exhausted. I looked it up later, they had just barely reached the 50 kilometer mark around here. 110 to go for them. Incredible to imagine. Their time limit was 36 hours, the finish line would close on Sunday 4 PM. At this point, they were on foot for about 9 hours, so these were the slowest participants, I’d guess. Still, they had a good chance to finish within the limit. For us, a different challenge presented itself.

Hydration

If there was a something unusual at this race event, it would be the hydration. A few reasons.

  1. During 50 kilometers, the crew had set up just 4 aid stations, the first one after a whopping 16 trail kilometers.
  2. Usually, ultra runners are used to carrying most of their own water and food supplies for a run. I am not. A 50k usually also just barely qualifies as an ultra, so I sort of hoped for the circumstances to not require me carrying such an annoyingly heavy backpack. 
  3. The event has a policy to avoid single-use plastic cups. So everyone had to bring their own foldable cups. I’ve been waiting for something like this for years now and was glad about that decision. A foldable silicone cup fits very well into my pocket and I was keen on trying this.
  4. The long wait for the bus and boat in the sun and the resulting 1.5 hour delay of the race extracted lots of additional fluids from all of our bodies, which created an even bigger demand for more water during the early kilometers especially, which just wasn’t supplied.

It seemed like I was the only person without a hydration pack on my back. 

So, after about two hours of waiting and bus / boat cruising, in addition to nearly two hours of running through the bushes, I got rather thirsty. Twelve to fourteen kilometers in, I felt dehydrated, and my sweat started to taste exceptionally salty. That’s usually when I know I really need fluids. Under normal circumstances I have no problem running longer distances of 20 to 30 kilometers during warm weather without any water, but this was different. 25 degrees and demanding single trails. I was really happy when I arrived at the first aid station.

People in tents serving water!
People in tents serving water!

My silicone cup worked really well and I immediately and eagerly downed around two liters of water, iso, coke, and ginger beer. Whatever I saw on these tables went into the cup and was thrown into my body right away. 

A bit wobbly to hold, but easy to carry.
A bit wobbly to hold, but easy to carry.

That felt great! My plan was to just get so much fluids into my body that I’ll not only rehydrate the last four hours, but also prevent dehydration for the next few hours until the next aid station. That one is another 14 kilometers away, at 29 total. 

After I got those two liters into me, I felt like this was no problem at all. And there were those other runners carrying kilos upon kilos of seemingly unnecessary water, refilling their tanks.

After barely making it, I felt like telling them about the existence of these aid stations. There’s free drinks provided, didn’t you know?
After barely making it, I felt like telling them about the existence of these aid stations. There’s free drinks provided, didn’t you know?

Hot Coffee

I wasted around five minutes here drinking, until I saw this other tent at the end.

Hot coffee and tea, as well as to some scones with jam and cream? Yes please!
Hot coffee and tea, as well as to some scones with jam and cream? Yes please!

Drinking a hot coffee and joking with another runner who also had never before had a hot coffee at a race took another five minutes. But an ultra isn’t about the finishing time, for me. That break was totally worth it.

With a full stomach and a good feeling I left the aid station.

The course was a lot more diverse from this point on. We even ran on tarmac, next to stinky cars, for around two kilometers. It was a welcome change for me, to not have to watch every single step.

There came deep woods with a fresh and clean smell, still lots of hills, some dirt roads. 

I made it through the next 14 kilometers without water very easily. The strategy worked out. Still, the refilling at that aid station was pure bliss, as I obviously lost a lot of sweat again. I had some salty and sweet snacks as well, just for good measure. Can’t go wrong with taking in calories during an ultra, although the sugary drinks probably already took care of that pretty well.

The distance between aid station #2 and #3 was just six kilometers. Easy. But even better, the family would wait for me at that point! Wisely, the staff had set up the tents next to a popular bay with a beach, so friends and family could have a good time in the so-called “Blue Lake” while we ran. That’s what Sophie and the kids did all day, as well. Up until I arrived from out of the woods.

Energy levels go straight up at this sighting of my daughters.
Energy levels go straight up at this sighting of my daughters.

I took my time at this aid station again, talking to them all about their day and sharing lots of hugs and kisses. 

While I felt quite depleted before arriving here, the lungs filled with air again, a spring in my step, and the remaining 15 kilometers could not bring me down, I was sure. As is tradition with us, the kids pushed me back onto the course so I could have it easier to get into the running motion again.

Lonely roads during a lowered sun.
Lonely roads during a lowered sun.

Direct sunlight. Glad I put on lots of sunscreen. It was afternoon at this point, maybe 4-5 PM, so the intensity of the sun was bearable. Hydration was up to par, and every time I passed another runner with a heavy backpack carrying water up a hill, I felt better about the decision to not use one. 

Being surprised by a photographer sitting at a random spot somewhere in this jungle
Being surprised by a photographer sitting at a random spot somewhere in this jungle
Sugar, we’re going down
Sugar, we’re going down

The course changed again as we lost height and it got more forest-y. Great air, soft ground, apart from the roots it was easy to run on. 

With no other sign of civilization, there was suddenly this little fella sitting on the tree – did somebody put in the effort to carry it all the way here from Half-Life 2 Episode 2?
With no other sign of civilization, there was suddenly this little fella sitting on the tree – did somebody put in the effort to carry it all the way here from Half-Life 2 Episode 2?
Some of New Zealand’s Redwoods. Huge old trees, just beautiful.
Some of New Zealand’s Redwoods. Huge old trees, just beautiful.

I had to stop here and hug one of these like a dirty hippie. Couldn’t run by without acknowledging this beauty. 

A flat stretch, for a change
A flat stretch, for a change

The last aid station was right in the middle of the forest, after a long and rather technical decline. And this was like a party tent. The volunteers were wearing superhero costumes, there was disco music playing, a little light show under the tent roof. Fun! Also, they had Mountain Dew. Right here, after 45 kilometers of uphill and downhill trail running, that was just the best! 

The last few kilometers were easy, just plain flat leading back into the town of Rotorua. 

Some sulfuric flats, smelling strongly
Some sulfuric flats, smelling strongly
Oh, hello!
Oh, hello!
Okay, need to go now.
Okay, need to go now.

The kilometers didn’t really have a meaning anymore. I was enjoying this a lot, and kept thinking I should do more trail running in the future, especially longer ones in interesting areas like this one. It seemed to be good for the soul, this whole race.

There’s always a hint of relief in the mix of emotions at the finish line.
There’s always a hint of relief in the mix of emotions at the finish line.

But afterwards as I watched the finish line and saw a few 102k runners finish (they had a 6 hour head-start), I couldn’t deny a feeling of “I should have gone for the longer one”. 

It has been a blast, to say the least. And apart from the delay at the beginning it was really well done by the team. Well, another one or two aid stations would have been a great help, but it was doable in the end. I’m very happy with my choice here and can only give this Tarawera Ultramarathon a huge thumbs up. So, if you happen to be in the area… 😉

The Strava stats.

In the end, it took me 6:31:33 to make it through these 50.7 kilometers. I finished 105th out of 718, 74th out of 347 males, and 28th out of 101 males in my age group 30-39. Not a bad result, if you ask me. Of course, non of this would have been possible without the amazing support of my lovely wife Sophie, who again made it possible for me to spend a day running in the bushes while she took care of all four kids. Single handedly, mind you. 

Nice carved wooden medals
Nice carved wooden medals
The swag
The swag

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