Running from my fear
TUM21 in the books
It was around 5:45am that Pig&Dan’s ‘Promised’ softly faded in as my morning alarm, slowing bringing me back from a deep dream into the real world. I had slept pretty well considering. The mixture of fear, excitement and anticipation wore out my brain and I crashed the night before.
But now I was awake. It was time for the Tarawera Ultramarathon by UTMB 21km trail run.
I hopped in the car and fumbled around for a radio station that was worth listening to for the 60 minute drive to Rotorua.
I ended up listening to some talkback, someone moaning about the media hyping up the cyclone that was due to hit the country in only a few days time. You can’t trust that media, they’ll do anything to keep us in fear.
I arrived at the Rotorua domain that was slowly filling up with a nervous energy. People shuffling around looking for their running mates; someone trying to figure out where they left their energy gels; seagulls being chased by a toddler who would end up in Lake Rotorua at 7am. Rookie.
It was a short bus ride to Tikitapu Blue Lake. The sun was just popping over the hills and peaking through the clouds, casting a warming glow over the still lake. The only ripple was being provided by a kayaker getting his morning laps in. It was breathtaking.
There was still 60 minutes before the race began, so I had a difficult choice to make - should I grab a coffee to warm me up and give me a burst of energy, while running the risk of shitting myself shortly into the run? Or, should I flag the caffeine and run around the course with all bowels in tact. I decided to risk it.
The queue for the coffee, brought to you by the epic crew at Elevation Coffee, was short, the long black was sweet and hot, and it went down a treat. Worth the risk.
I settled towards the back of the 1,500 people deep pack as the final countdown started. I had no expectations and just wanted to have a great day out - and the people at the back had the same attitude, so they were my people.
The gun went, the cheers went up, and the running began. 21km to go.
It was only about 1km in that the words of the MCs Kerry Sutter and Ali Potteniger (also my Squad Run coaches) started to haunt me - ‘only leave footsteps, only take memories, don’t shit on the trails’, or something like that.
I needed to poo. The coffee was a bad idea. I was in trouble.
I was in for 6km back to the first aid station, where I knew there were loos. Easy. I’ll be fine.
But at the 2km mark the mild cramps turned into the sort of discomfort that makes you waddle instead of run.
I started to think about ways I could justify ducking off the road for a minute (‘it was an emergency’) or just letting it run down the leg (‘but Kerry told me too!).
I was about to make a terrible choice when the road turned into trail, and the sight of a DOC provided toilet, complete with loo paper, appeared. Like a mirage in the desert, I wasn’t sure if this was real. And if it wasn’t, I apologise to wherever I ended up depositing a half digested long black.
3km down and I was fully relieved, and I was ready to put in the work.
The track around Tikitapu is amazing. 6km of beautiful native bush, with the lake a constant presence on the right hand side, and bird song so loud it was hard to hear the music blasting in my ears.
Thanks to the terrible weather that caused the Auckland floods in January, the courses for the 100 mile, 102km and 50km races ended up sharing a lot of the same tracks as the 21km run. The back end of the track around Tikitapu ended up being a great confluence of all different athletes. 21km runners only 40 minutes in who were feeling great and only had 15km to go; 102km runners who started some five hours earlier and wouldn’t be done until I was having breakfast the next day; and everyone in between.
In the race briefing a few days earlier, Kerry Suter, who is an absolute running legend, mentioned that giving other runners props and encouragement gives you a pick up as well. So whenever some of the alien athletes who were running longer than I could image would come smashing down the trail saying “on the right”, I’d say “leshgo you absolute beast”. It made them smile. It made others laugh. It was a great tactic.
The run through to about the 12km mark was pretty fun; undulating bush track, mixed in with a bit of gravel MTB paths and forestry roads. Very runnable for the most part, even if there were a few casualties along the way, in tears knowing that all their hard work had been for nothing after they rolled an ankle on the uneven ground.
It all changed once we hit the eastern side of the Whakarewarewa Forest and the slog started to kick in. There is about 723m of elevation gain throughout the whole course, and 80% of the up and down happens between the 11-15km mark.
As we trudged up the giant hill, it felt like a death march. Apart from some 100mile runners who seemingly still had energy to run up the god damn hill, the rest of us were hiking. Step after step after step after step up a hill that never ended. You couldn’t see the top. You didn’t know how long it was or how far you had left.
Just as I was contemplating having a sit down when I saw adaptive athlete Zachary Ryan Friedley up ahead of me. He has one leg, and was smashing up this hill on a blade prosthetic. He’s an incredible athlete and a professional trail runner, so in a very different league to me, but it was amazing to see. If he could put his head down and do it, so could I.
The reward at the top of the hill was some amazing views across Lake Rotorua and down towards the Redwood forest. I spent a few minutes taking pictures and shooting the shit with some people. All up I think I spent 15 minutes taking pictures across the whole course - it was stunning. Afterall, I wasn’t there for a quick time, but a fun time.
The Redwoods was where the last aid station was - the last chance for some fresh water, some chip and a Red Bull, and then a short, flat 5km to the end.
But it wasn’t 5km - it was more like 8km. And it was about the 21km mark, that my brain had enough. I signed up for a 21km run and there was no end in sight! I had no idea if I was four meters or four kilometres away from the end. In my mind, it got pretty dark. I was done.
Funny how the old mind brain works. If I knew I was doing 24km, it would have been fine - but knowing it was more than 21km, I was a wreck.
The energy levels weren’t helped by the fact the final few kilometres take you though some volcanic mud fields, where the warm sulphur choked you just when you needed fresh cold oxygen. It was steaming hot, arid, and suffocating.
In the last few km I was doing everything I could to pump me up. I remembered Kerry’s tip about giving props to others, and I started to put my energy into that. So when I crossed paths with the 102km runners who were heading back out for another lap of the course, I gave some of the most aggressive and patronising encouragement anyone had received.
“GO MY BRO, RUN FAST. RUN FASTER! YOU GOT THIS. BEAST.”
It worked for me pretty well. I hope i didn’t scare too many people!
As I collapsed across the line I was so happy. Not as emotional as the run around Belmont Hills back in 2021, but stoked I had achieved the goal I had set - go out and have fun.
I made it through unscathed, uninjured and learnt a lot about running, training and drinking coffee immediately before a race.
It’s one of the most beautifully stunning runs I have ever done, and I’ll be back again in 2024. The only question will be, is the 21km or the 50km event?
A mad thanks to my amazing wife and kids who put up with me moaning about running, and heading out for many hours on a weekend instead of hanging with them. It was great seeing y’all at the finish line <3.
Nice work! and awesome piece. Made me laugh and definitely echoed a few of my own experiences and thoughts although, touch wood I haven’t had to dash off trail in that capacity while chasing my 1/2 marathon dream. I can say it’s hard finding a tree to hide behind to take a piss when you’re running around Ruapehu. I completed the Goat in January, but that didn’t satisfy the 1/2 marathon itch. Ran the Pouakai circuit in February, but that wasn’t a race (although 24km), so it also didn’t quite satisfy the itch, although it lead to the paradox, if it’s not on Strava, did it happen? Sonif it’s on stabs as 21km is that a 1/2 marathon?
Either way, I’m eyeing up the Rotorua 1/2 in May to tick the box.
Keep an eye out for the Tongariro trail festival if you’re up for an intermediate length (32km). I would have hit it, but was busy last weekend. Maybe next year.