Tarawera Ultra the race of two halves.
Tarawera Ultra is a race that can polarise the field. It is a race of two halves. It is well suited for the technical junkies and road speedsters. If the road runners can make it through the Spartan like obstacle course trails of around Okatainia Lodge and make it past the Tarawera Falls, all the magical lakes, pop out onto the fire trails, without smashing up their quads on the steep descents, log jumps and rock climbs of the first 60 km, all they have to do is turn their legs over for the last 30km of open fire trail running with just a few easy climbs, and cruise on into the finish line.
It would be my 3rd attempt to making it all the way to the end of the Tarawera Ultra. In 2013 and 2014 the course had been changed due to the threat of bush fires and a cyclone, I was determined that I was going to make it to the end no matter what. Let’s see who will be picked off in the last 5ks like a sitting duck on the wide open fire trail. I hoped that it would not be me…….
In 2012 I cut my race short due to pissing blood at 75km, I was shitting blood from 35km. I pulled out at 85km thinking I was doing damage to my body. Later found out that gluten and dairy were my problem. The only way I was pulling out of Tarawera Ultra was if I was going to be choppered off the course.
I had a terrible lead up before Tarawera Ultra. Let’s just say I was home-less, phone-less, and left with out coin, on a nebuliser with chronic asthma attacks after my Hares and Hounds 52km win, on antibiotics and just hoped I had enough time to get over my mental breakdown, chest infection and sort my head out before I raced.
I sorted out my shelter on Australia Day, grabbed a new iPhone after attempting to use a tiny drug dealer phone for 2 days but gave into the modern ease and got back on track with my communications and thank goodness I am employed, proud mother of two, I made some cash from running my own business and I was able claw my way back from rock bottom with the help of my awesome mates and just have enough time to taper before Tarawera Ultra. My mental state was still shit 2 weeks before Tarawera Ultra and the only thing that seemed to help me was exercise and staying strong for my girls and making sure I was not going to break.
I did break. I was in a real state, after being on the nebuliser with my asthma out of control I had a few more asthmas attacks as a result of the emotional stress I was under. I was so busy trying to get my personal life sorted out after separating from my husband, working and looking after my girls that the thought of just being able to run for 30 minutes made me cry.
I still had my two beautiful girls, my friends, business and my running. I got out and started exercising again. Man, my training and listening to music in the car between PT session is what bought me back into a positive frame of mind. I pumped about a strong interval session, followed by Kettle Bells, Sumo Squats, Burpee’s with over-head shoulder press, two handed rows, released some healing endorphins and that night I did a speedy 10km up “My” Mt Coo-tha. Also known to me as my Mother Mt Coo-Tha. This is where I find strength, have a cry and resolved my problems.
About 1 week before Tarawera Ultra my asthma and chest infection seemed to clearing up and I was going to be well enough to race. I had a rough trot with my diet. I worked out that peanuts were in a store bought nut butter I’d been eating, which gave me asthma then lead into a chest infection, then worked out I could no longer tolerate sesame either. So with my airways under attack, stomach bloating, face swollen I had to clean out my diet and to reduce swelling throughout my entire body. I stuffed up on the plane and ate a non-gluten free cookie. I asked for a “Gluten Free Cookie”. But was given whatever was on the menu. FARK! The menu had changed from when I last flew. No more Gluten Free Byron bay Cookies available. FARK! After realising my mistake after tasting the cookie, it tasted way too good to be gluten free, I went straight into the toilets and consumed anti-histermines and I took some anti-imflamatories and just hoped it would not bloat my guts with a gluten baby for the race……..FARK! I can’t bloody win!
Life’s not perfect. Many a race lead up is not perfect. It is how your brain can handle the set backs that can give you your strength.
I arrived at the start line at 5am less than 12 hours after jumping on a flight from Brisbane. I did my usual warm up and snuck in behind the blokes on the start line and had a chat to 2013 UTA Clients Gemma and Scott who were running the 100km, before finding the who’s who of NZ running Ruby and Jo and gave them a big G’day. I then spotted Spanish running legend Nurea and wished her good luck also. I started my watch 3 minutes early to make sure I could not get complaisant throughout the day and make sure I’d get my goal time of Sub 10 Hours.
I counted down 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 and I was off and running up the hill under the light of an Ay-Up Head Torch. Ruby flew out, so did Nurea and Jo. I chilled out behind Nurea for some time, then moved up on the right hand side, past her and then Ruby on a slight descent. Ruby hung behind me until the trail opened up and she soon past me never to be seen again……True class……..
I started the climb and was so surprised no to be mowed down by Nurea. I’m not sure if she was really well. She was sniffing a bit and just did not look like she was on fire as she normally does. Maybe she is a bit sick? I’m not sure. Pre-race she had mentioned she was climbing over their off season and not running that much. Maybe with her sniffles me with no altitude would put us on an even playing field.
I decided to just chill out, run my own race and enjoy the some of the best trails that Rotavegas had to offer. I cruised up the switch backs, with my quads freezing, I was so bloody cold! It was almost a 25 degrees difference to the running in Brisbane. It was only 10 degrees and I’m use to 35 degrees.The air was cold and dry. Usually it is a bit wetter in the Red Wood forest and better for my breathing but this was a insanely dry year in NZ. I had to wear my Inov8 Wrag over my airways to warm up the air before it hit my lungs. I have exercise induced asthma set off by rapid breathing of cold dry air. Kind of funny that I like running mountain ultra’s so much.
My aim of the day was to not feel a lactic burn in my muscles, no pushing and to have legs for after 60km. I was so keen and ridiculously excited to get to the end of the 100km event.
I popped out onto the ridge and cruised down the hill past the head torch drop off, through the red wood forest and onto some amazing technical trails, rolling into the check point at 12.5km. I swapped my Heed water bottles and grabbed a gel flask and I was off and running again around the Blue Lake. I ran along estimating how much fluid I’d need for the next section and tipped out 1/2 of the fluid in each bottle. The conditions were cold for me, and I was fully hydrated and running along without a sweat. I was also about 5 minutes ahead of schedule.
I cruised along the soft, technical beech trails, not pushing it just letting my legs and the terrain dictate my pace and before long I popped out onto the road and I was rolling along into and through CP 2 Lake Okareka. I cruised up the hill, onto the steep fire trail with Nuera following me, catching me, soon passing me, before I turned my legs on a bit and soon caught her, chatted to her, and then past her again. I then stopped and filled up with 500ml of water at Miller Rd and she past me again before I cruised up and caught up to her staying calm and within my limits. She took a few steps walking up a steep section and my legs could handle the gradient running, so on the flat at the top I past her again, and just decided to use my own body to guide my exertion.
I enjoyed the amazing New Zealand country side and the pretty daisy’s lining the side of the track, the sweeping views across valley for the next 9km of climbing and really only worried about the 5 meters of ground in front of my feet. The height of the climb and the distance I had to go did not matter. My focus was on the 5m in front of my feet. I had this next 5m covered and that was all that mattered to me.
My asthma was pretty crap. I was coughing at the top of each climb and needed ventolin to keep my airways open. I was pretty clogged and it sucked a bit, so I sucked on ventolin. I knew my lungs were not at full force but hey, this is asthma and I chose not to let it bother me, get upset, freaked out or worried about my lungs. Every time I saw a stream of sunshine sneaking through the trees I tried to gulp in this warm air into my lungs. On every descent I blew out the air in my lungs and tried my hardest to breathe in through my nose when I was not on the climb. I’d been foam rolling my back and ribs hoping that I would not get the usual tight breathing muscles that I usually get at about 40km into an event.
I made it to the top of the climb, still freezing and wishing that the air temperature would warm up so I would not have to wear the Inov-8 wrag over my face any more. I cruised down the steep trail and into Okataina Lodge surprised that I was able to lead Nuera over the biggest climb of the day and quickly swapped my water bottles over, grabbed a flask and got moving again. It was bloody cold! My lungs were not well and I suffered for the next 3ks and Nurea finally caught me on the next climb, past me with Ruth chasing her down. I had to suck on the ventolin again and again. I estimates that it would not be until after 50km that I would have relief and my lungs would feel better.
The trail followed the south side of the hills bordering the lakes with magic views. Enjoyed the trails, ferns, mosses, re-grouped, ate food, looked after my hydration. I was a bit freaked out every time I saw the branches of ferns lying on the ground, they reminded me of snakes and now living Queensland, snakes are everywhere and I am extremely cautious when trail running. It was a kind of love hate with these smooth black branches, they set of adrenalin dodge, hop and skip but I was also so happy to be able to along run without fear of a snake bite.
Whilst contemplating how the silver ferns were not so silver this year due to the dryness in the weather,I ate the dirt, smashed up both knees, landed on my ribs, winded myself, squishing all the air out of my lungs and felt the ache in my ribs. I got up. The pain in my ribs was pretty severe. I totally knocked the wind out of my lungs. Knees were swelling, ribs aching, elbow was scraped and I took about 10 steps walking re-filling the air in my lungs. I thought about pulling out. My ribs were pretty sore. I was sore in my abs too. I took a hit to the whole front of my body from my knees all to my mouth. Lucky I landed on soft dirt and not a rock. The fall upset my abdominal separation, with my feet flying almost over my head as I rolled up my face flat out on the ground. My abs had a feeling like it had been ripped a bit more. “It’ll only hurt for 5 minutes that’s the rules, just start running and take little steps”. I said to myself. Knees killing me, feeling the swelling building up. I took some panadol, some Endurolyte’s and pushed on.
I got moving again, focused again. I was still 15 minutes ahead of schedule and I was on my way to recovery. I ran in and out of Humphrey’s Bay, feeling fresh and focused, concentrating on the trail ahead of me and moving as fast as I could over the fallen logs, boulders, tree roots, twists and turns, over logs, under branches, tried to stay up and running.
I ran into Tarawera Outlet ahead of schedule and happy to see my support crew. I grabbed my Heed bottles, Hammer flasks and got out of there. Finally there was sun on the trail and my asthma was settling down. The air temperature was heating up and I was feeling stronger with every degree temperature increase.
I cruised along the river, wishing I was swimming in the beautiful blue creek of Tarawera Falls. I spotted bikini clad tourist and wished I was joining them for a swim. The temperature was rising and I was keen to finish this race and start a NZ holiday.
I ran through the 60km Check Point feeling on top of the world and looking forward to some easy Ks into the 100km. I turned off to the right and walked and ran up the pine needle trail through the Tarawera Forest. The trail then became a 4WD Track and I was climbing up the trail now being caught by Relay Runners leaving the 60km Check Point. I love events where there are races, within the race. I ran up the hill and only walked when I hit a lose pumice stone section of the trail. I was soon at the top of the climb and then rolled on down the other side managing my descent and enjoying the easy ks on the hard fire trail.
I cruised into the 70km Check Point and found my support crew. “Sorry Shona I’ve bought you the wrong check point bag.” Said Gary, my support crew.
Bugger! I thought. “No worries, I’ll just use what’s at this check point”. I replied careful not to get up-set. I know being support crew is the most unrewarding job in all of ultra racing. They wait for us at the check point for hours for us to see them for maybe 10 seconds if all goes well with only a quick thank you and see you soon. I filled up at the aid station on Heed and Coke. I kept the Banana Hammer gels on me that I had in my Inov8 Race Ultra Pack. I then saw Gary getting a bit freaked out and I made a special effort to assure him I would be just fine. I always carry enough Endurolytes to see me form the Start – Finish of the event plus all my essentials, asthma drugs, few extra gels, Hammer Bars, so I was going to be okay. I was still 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
I raced on out of there feeling fresh and about 2 ks down the road I felt a sugar low, sweating on my brow from drinking the Coke whilst climbing up the fire trail into the next check point. I broke my own cardinal rule of never have Coke until the last 10-18km. I had it with 30ks to go! Stupid I told myself. Suck it up. Burn that fat. I was still making good time and noticed a fellow runner was cramping so I handed him 4 Endurolyte’s in hope that he’s now make it to the end of the event. The heat was climbing and runners were starting to suffer.
I needed more ventolin now after chatting to the cramping runner whilst climbing and I was starting to hurt a bit. I did my best to just push on up the climb and into the check point smiling at the guy sitting in the camp chair with the binoculars yelling out the Bib numbers to his mum. “Muuuuuuum, Number 584, Muuuuuuuuuum Number 584”. It was hilarious, the tone of voice, picnic chair, binoculars and the fact that this check point was a family operation. I filled up with water, Heed, 1/3 Banana and kept pushing up the climb and watched the runners fly down the hill on the out and back loop.
Okay lets get through this section without seeing any other female runners on the out and back. That was my goal. I ran up the hot exposed fire trail turned right at the “Y” junction and found myself on a climb choosing to walk up the loose trail until I hit the top of the climb before forcing myself to run 20 steps only at a time, crossing the timing belt, running some more, hurting, then descending onto the fire trail.
I rolled down this hard fire trail and my lower abdomen started to kill me. I took a nature stop and checked my urine and noticed it was bright red. FUCK! I was pissing blood and there seemed to be a fair bit of it. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! What is with me and bloody Tarawera Ultra! Fuck. Okay this just messed with my head. I was 75km into the event at the exact same stage in the event as I was pissing blood in 2013 at Tarawera Ultra. FARK! Shit! I shed a few tears. This was so not fair! What’s with the water over here? I thought about the cookie I ate on the plane and how my stomach was now swollen with a gluten baby, I thought about the fall I’d had and maybe I had some minor internal bleeding in my bladder and it was only bleeding badly because I am running. I had a lot to think about now for the next 25km.
Pissing bright red blood is okay during an event. It will usually clear up 2-3 days afterwards, or even in just a few hours after you stop running. The mind is what takes the most hit though. The worry that you might be doing damage to your body, mistrust of your body, self belief suffers. My success comes from my mental strength and now it was going to be tested for the next 2.5 hours.
I rolled down the hill telling myself if was just a superficial bleed and it would clear up after I finished. Just make it to the end and the pain will stop. I was not Fucking DNF’ing the Tarawera Ultra again. I was not DNF’ing any event again unless I have to me taken off the course in a helicopter.
I ran the loop and well wished a UTA Client Steven on his way out of the Check Point. He was looking really fresh, while I was feeling like shit. I rolled into the 85km Check Point and filled up on Banana, Heed and Water. I tipped water over my head, drank some and did my best to stay as hydrated, cool as possible just incase there was a bit of a kidney issue going on.
I soon worked out every time I ate or drank I had killer cramps in my lower abdomen that was so painful it force me to walk, cry and scream for about 10 seconds until the spasm released. I told myself to relax and took more enduroyltes. I was hurting and just wanting to get to the finish.
I ran along the fire trail, concentrating on my line, cadence, run fast on tired legs. I had to shorten my stride. If I tried to run with my natural action my guts would cramp and spasm. I was in management mode, counting of the metres and hoped I was doing enough but knowing I had slowed down considerably. 25km is a long time to have to run feeling like crap. My mental state was not good either. I was so worried about myself and the pain associated with drinking and eating I limited my food and drinks and then I became hungry. I pee again at 85km and had another cheek and it was still bright red. I was okay, it was not a coke coloured but fuck this was not the way to finish of an event to say the least.
I was so relieved to make it to the Fisherman’s Bridge Check Point. I picked up my Heed and more water and got out of there, ran around the corner caught up with 85km runners, drank, walked screamed in pain, walked and then relaxed ran on.
I started the read the signage that had been placed on the trail since the 75km mark. I think they were Barry White quotes about can you hear the music yet…….I was hoping I could hear the music. I sang to myself “Straight Lines” by Silver Chair and concentrated on my line on the long fire straights. At 95km I started to relax. I think I am going to keep 4th place. I drank Ginger Beer at the check point worrying about my guts and while I was having a bit of a chat to the Pink Check Point Ladies a female runner flew past me with her pacer. Fuck! There goes 4th place I was passed by Fiona Hayvice and her pacer. Now get running before you lose 5th. Oh shit too late you’ve just lost 5th. I was then introduced to Kovo MacDonald by her friendly Pacer. FUCK! I want a pacer too! Dam should have organised one. Bugger! Oh well. Next year I’ll organise one.
I was a bit pissed off with myself for losing 2 places so close to the finish. Okay, let’s try and get 5th back. I tried to launch an attack and decided to try and use Kovo and her pacer to pace me back onto Fiona. I lifted my knees, and ignore the pain.
The trail became technical again and I became encouraged. If it stayed technical I could have a chance of running down the two strong females. The trail descended and I past Kovo and her pacer. I tried my best to encourage them to come with me and run down Fiona. I never feel good about passing runners in the last few ks and I wanted them to fight it out with me. She’d busted her butt to get me and I wanted her to give it a shot to see if she could get Fiona. I crossed the bridge and swore as I had to push up the hands on quads climb. I spotted Fiona again and tried to get her back. Kovo soon past me again on the flat and I did my best to stay with them but she was too strong for me on the open flat fire trails. I tied again but Kovo was flying with the taste of an Aussie Scalp she was bounding down the trail and I was not match for her. Her pacer was so kind to me when they ran past, he poured water of my neck and shoulders and wished me the best of luck. It was just a really cool experience, I love this kind of gutsy racing. I just hoped there would be a technical descending finish but I think I was out of luck.
I climbed the stairs and a sweet older lady on a bike told me there was 1.5 ks to go. I ran across the bridge, down the stairs and onto the flat and my heart sank as I race along the edge of the golf course, thinking how I hated golf courses because they were usually at the end of events, big, flat, open spaces that seem to continue on forever.
I checked my watch and realised that even thought I’d lost 2 places in the last 5 ks I was in chance of making it under the 10 hours for 100km for the first time in my life. I turned my tired legs over and started asking spectators how far it was to the finish. I could hear the MC on the load speaker and I check my watch again and realised that I was going to make it if I could sprint home. I lifted my legs again and check the over head finish line clock and sprinted across the finish line in 9 Hours 59 Minutes and 58 Seconds. I made it. Finally I made it to the finish of Tarawera Ultra 3rd time lucky and finally I’ve broken the 10 hour barrier for a 100km event. I lay down on the ground happy to finally rest my sore abdomen.
After a quick chat with one of the Race Directors I informed the medic about my problem and drank electrolytes, congratulated Fiona and Kovo for their awesome effort and thanked them for making me work to the end meaning that I managed my sub-10 Hour 100km. Ruth was at the finish line too and we chatted also about her amazing time. I have a special spot for Kiwi Runners. They are just so friendly and humble. After watching a few Aussie blokes, Gregg and Paul, come in after me who I’d never beaten before I decided it was time to sample the free Cider and give these boys some shit about getting chicked and swap war stories.
The finishing tent was hilarious. We all had stories to tell. I found the Aussie, more Queenslander, or Kiwi Ex-pat section and we all chatted, offered lifts, drank cider and beer while we all waited for our mates and support crew to arrive and join us for more cider and beer. Tarawera Ultra put on an awesome finishing tent.
1 Ruby Muir – 9:02:45
2 Ruth Croft (The North Face) – 9:14:36
3 Núria Picas (Buff) – 9:40:49
4 Fiona Hayvice – 9:57:33
5 Kovo MacDonald – 9:57:45
6 Shona Stephenson (Inov-8) – 9:59:58
7 Jackie Holley – 10:15:54
8 Joelle Vaught (Montrail) – 10:24:57
9 Lucie Barney – 10:34:13
10 Jean Beaumont – 10:46:29
1 Dylan Bowman (The North Face) – 7:44:58
2 Jorge Maravilla (Hoka One One) – 8:01:45
3 Yoshikazu Hara (Hoka One One) – 8:12:14
4 Vajin Armstrong (Macpac) – 8:26:50
5 Michael Wardian (Hoka One One) – 8:32:38
6 Pau Bartoló (Buff) – 8:42:46
7 Robbie Britton (Inov-8) –8:45:10
8 Chris Truscott (New Balance) – 8:58:17
9 Anthony Hancy (Hoka One One) – 9:08:26
10 Andrius Ramonas (Salomon) – 9:12:48