Tarawera 85k: Chasing the Red Spandex

Rotorua to Kawerau, New Zealand (March 2012)

Question:  What happens when you fly across the Pacific two days before your ultra marathon, and your bag doesn’t arrive with you?

Answer: You thank God that you had enough sense to pack your race gear in your carry on!

Killing time at the Redwoods Visitor Center before the start of the race, I wracked my brain for an answer as to why I’d fly across the world just to beat myself up.  The best answer I could find was “why not?”  Throwing on some Skrillex tunes to fire up, I began to dance in place in preparation to start.  That’s normal, right?  As the announcer called off all the represented countries in the day’s events, I felt proud to surround myself with running enthusiasts from all over the globe.

Blue Lake (photo courtesy of Ian Cunningham)

Blue Lake (photo courtesy of Ian Cunningham)

The gun went off and runners entered into a lush green forest as the morning light tried to break through the heavy canopy of trees.  As we ran, no hobbit sightings were reported, however, I did spot Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, and Italians on my early journey through the backcountry of Rotorua.

Keeping a steady pace while jumping over multiple plant roots, I caught short glimpses of Lake Tititapu (Blue Lake) as we followed the trail. Before approaching the first aid station, I quickly pulled over to take a #1 while being careful not to hover over anything that looked poisonous.  Cheers from spectators welcomed us at the aid station and a smile crossed my face when I saw my buddy Ian mixed in with the crowd.

Four water crossings were in the immediate line up, but using my standard strategy for water obstacles, I just ran without thinking twice. The squishy shoes, soaked socks, mud and wet clothes just became part of the journey.  With mud caked on my shoes, I hauled foward while slipping, sliding and kicking the brown stuff everywhere.

Running through the backcountry of Rotorua and on the search for hobbits

Running through the backcountry of Rotorua and on the search for hobbits

The forest turned into open road, but quickly transitioned back to trail terrain complete with the Kiwi elements: volcanic soil, rocks, branches, roots, and random holes that you can easily break an ankle in. At this point, I still felt fresh while approaching a few climbs.  Some technical downhill sections welcomed us on the backsides, but all went well and I didn’t eat shit.

The race was mapped out in kilometers so I was constantly doing mileage conversions in my head.  As I ran, on several occasions I contemplated doing the 100k distance instead.  However, I didn’t pack a headlamp or have anyone to alert Ian of my decision, so I stuck with the original plan of 85k. Afterall, the main purpose of traveling to New Zealand and participating in this event was to just embrace the experience of tackling unfamiliar territory.

Tarawera Falls from the course

Tarawera Falls from the course

As the kilometers ticked by, I remained focused on my steps ahead in order to prevent a gnarly plummet down steep slopes and into the water of Lake Tarawera.  I jumped over more roots and dodged more low hanging branches.  However, on one occasion I landed in a soft pile of dirt that gave away underneath me.  In an instant, I found myself sliding down the hill but quickly grabbed a root to stop my fall.  Pulling myself back onto the trail, I brushed off the dirt, acknowledged the epic moment and carried on.

On a flat section break, bees swarmed the area and up ahead I saw a lady pulling down her pants. I’m all about running naked, but I did wonder what the hell she was doing.  I quickly realized this poor lady had been stung in the crotch and after awkwardly examining the situation, all I could say to her was that the next aid station wasn’t far away.

Tarawera Falls marked the 60k finish for many runners in the field.  For me, it was a quick rest stop before proceeding on for an additional 25k.  I started creating little mental games for myself by picking people ahead of me to chase down.  My first contestants were 2 Asian gentlemen. After taking a quick #1 in the bushes, (while watching for crotch stinging bees and poisonous plants), I hunted, equalized and then passed.  The next contestant was a European gentleman in red spandex.  The color provided a good visual target so I knew he’d be a great goal to aim for.

85k finish in Kawerau

85k finish in Kawerau

The course opened to a wide forestry road and I felt alright despite my left achilles barking at me.  It wasn’t going to be a PR day and I knew the easy thing to do would have been to walk, but I needed to hunt down the red spandex!  I eventually made up ground and passed him.  With 3k remaining, I created more distance between us and even had time to pull over and relieve myself at the base of a small bridge.

I could hear the finish line loudspeaker in the distance but the track magically disappeared along with the ribbon markers.  I spent 5 minutes looking for the correct path and with 52 miles successfully completed, my navigational skills had to fail me then.  With the red spandex headed my way and closing the gap, I finally found the path before he had the chance to catch up.  Ian appeared as I emerged from the forest and he ran the final 300 meters with me to the finish line.  My name was butchered as I crossed, which is normal, but I couldn’t be upset because the accent was so rad.

Feeling the spirit

Feeling the spirit

In ultra running, you know pain is inevitable, but the question is, how much room can you make for it? As the distances get longer, the more room you learn to make. So far I’ve completed running events that are 50-60 miles in length and I’m excited to see what’s in store for the 100 mile run.  It will be a true test of patience, perseverance and tolerance.

Personally, I quickly forget what I went through in the process of completing an event or challenge. This may explain why I keep coming back for more.  From what I’ve been told, it’s like birthing a child.  It’s not the most pleasant experience, but afterwards you begin to realize that it may be worth tolerating again.

The Tarawera event was special to me.  No PRs were set, but it was my first international race and it was good confirmation of my ability to tackle the unknown, face a day of mixed feelings, emotions and physical changes, yet conquer the elements for my own enjoyment. I want to encourage others to do the same with their own challenges and goals.