Tarawera was never in my radar early last year. My default plan for a destination race was a full road marathon with Berlin and Chicago in the running. But then, my brother who’s an active road biker in New Zealand phoned me about Tarawera and that some of his buddies were joining and in the less than an hour, I made the decision to take on it. So am I gonna do a 60K or an 85K? A little research and some advice from Jael (with a lot of guidance from Filipino Tarawera finishers) and my 85K registration was finalized.
After finishing some road business (the Milo Marathon & Milo Lucena 21K), I plunged into trail training with DBB’s Mt. Batolusong 50K and CM50 as the highlights. A few cramming time on the trails, mostly with Team Marupok on the hills of Montalban and by February 6, I found myself at the starting line of the Tarawera Ultra Race, albeit 5 pounds heavier.
The last statement demands some clarification. I started my vacation a month before the race but I’ve mapped out a detailed training schedule to make sure I won’t go off the fitness level grid. Unfortunately, after coming from a busy, stressed out environment (I was rushing patient cases days before my departure), all I wanted to do was relax and reconnect with my brother’s family. After all, I was on vacation mode, right? Add up my poor sleeping habits and the irresistibly luscious dishes my sister-in-law kept feeding us and you have one out-of-shape, unrecognizable me.
Fortunately, I registered for the SMC 10K run in Sydney (52:26) and the Hutt River Trail Marathon in Wellington (4:36) to ensure myself of some mileage. In between, I squeezed in more kilometers while touring & walking Sydney’s labyrinth of streets and back alleys plus more jogs and runs along Bondi and Blue Mountain. Wellington was more tricky with its numerous hills and windy environment but the minimal slow runs I did was augmented by indoor workouts.
We arrived at Rotorua a day before the Tarawera race in time for the race kit claiming, briefing and sports expo where I also reconnected with Filipino runners Arlene, Kirk & Kian. Four more New Zealand-based Pinoy runners were also there to bring Team Pilipinas to a total of 8. Tarawera is the second race in 2016 of the Ultra-Trail World Tour calendar and the presence of some elite runners made for an intimidating situation for undertrained and unfit me. Those thoughts kept me awake that night with only a maximum sleep of 3 hours and soon, it was time to prepare and head off to the start.
And we are off. The Tarawera race started quite late at 6 am with runners from the three categories bunched together. It was a dark and rainy slow start as all 1,300 runners negotiated the crowded trail inside a pine forest for the first 4 kilometers. I dove into an ocean of bobbing headlamps, trying to pass runners who have been overwhelmed by the numerous hills and slippery terrain. The light rain on my face and the slowly revealing silhouettes of giant trees and ferns all around made for a fairy tale setting. Still infused with enthusiasm, I attacked the race with gusto with enough walks on the uphills.
Leading to the first aid station, the terrain started to descend and kept on it as we circled the edge of Lake Tikitapu. It was my golden hour as I glided down with ease among zigzagging paths laden with soft mud of ideal consistency – soft enough to absorb the pressure but not too sticky to accumulate and cause sliding. Or maybe, the leg muscles were still strong to help me counter any forces which can lead to a nasty fall. 16.4 kilometers later, we were sprinting towards the beach side of the lake as hordes of well-wishers and volunteers welcomed and cheered for us at our Blue Lake station.
The next aid station was only at KM22.8 and relatively flat but it was the next aid station (Okataina Lodge) at KM39.4 which took light years to reach. The third leg of this race at 16.6 kilometers is without a doubt the longest and has the two steepest climbs before descending into some mean technical downhills. Even if I was a bit spent, I just had to suck in the endless climbs and muddy landscape lest I fail to make the 1:50 pm cut off. The women and senior runners I overtook earlier started gaining on me but I just stayed in my glacial pace until the ground started to tilt down and I was soaring.
Weather predictions expected the rain to cease before noon but by 12:30 pm when I left Aid Station 3, the light shower kept pummelling the trail and would continue up to the early evening. The next leg offered a rolling slope with intermittent views of the lovely Lake Okataina. The route slithers around the still water of Okataina and a steady pace can be had while keeping an eye on the deep yawning gorge below.
By KM 49.2, I was welcomed by a groovy bevy of hippies and hefty slices of pizza at AS 4 (Humphries Bay) so even if I was drenched to the bone, I was on a high. The Tarawera Aid Stations even if at times are too far in between are a welcome oasis of fruit slices, yummy sandwiches, hot soups and energy gels & power drinks. And they are manned by some of the most enthusiastic volunteers in the planet while garbed in various outlandish motiffs – Santa Claus town, Star Wars space station, etc.
The fifth leg was a good 8.1 kilometers but with the expansive and mysterious Lake Tarawera (our third and last lake) on my right, it was a pleasurable jaunt. Many a time, I would try to hook up with a train of runners running moderately but consistently while sharing war stories. It was a worthy distraction from the cold and fatigue plus it burned the miles, unnoticeably. We were at the tail end of the race and many of the men were already planning to quit or downgrade to a shorter distance. It was the women who were more enthusiastic and kept me going.
The last 4 kilometers leading to the 60KM finish line was a series of winding paths eventually tracing the course of the Tarawera River. With the rushing waters in the background, I linked with Mac who related to me the running scene in New Zealand. He is witness at how Kiwis of whatever gender, age or size prepare and train systematically and regularly months before their races. I told him how many times I saw Wellingtonians run, walk or bike to and from work with their backpacks on. It’s no wonder that many of us were left biting their dust come race day.
The rains never ceased so the swollen river led us to 2 raging cascades before the behemoth multi-layered, grandiose Tarawera Falls. I was in awe of its gushing waters in full display but we had the final cut-off to catch. 85KM runners should leave the 60KM mark on or before 5:50 pm. We arrived at 5:20 pm but we had to leave soon so there was little room to change to a new base layer and grab some snack. Along the way, I grabbed Mac and Kirk (who had arrived earlier and was having issues of making the 6:20 pm cut-off at KM 72, for 100KM runners) to join me on our 85-KM quest.
With no cut-offs to chase, we settled to a more relaxed slow pace even if a pang of guilt for not pushing myself hovered like some dark cloud. The rain and the impending cold was simply zapping what’s left of my enthusiasm. The final 25 kilometers was supposed to be the most runnable portion of the course but there I was making small talk with two guys and we have settled to just finish the race. So walk we did along a wide corridor flanked by tall pines on both sides, as dusk settled in. Fortunately, Mac’s pace was rather brisk that Kirk and I had to catch up with him every now and then. The path was now grassy and a welcome relief from the previous muddy and rolling terrain, pre-60K.
At the Titoki station, we stayed longer to ward off the cold (with piping hot soup!) and take to the portalets which were remarkably well-stocked and most welcome at this part of the race instead of digging some hole in the dark forest. We left the station with the dark slowly bleeding across the land. The rain had ceased and it was a bit foggy as we settled into a walk and jog routine. Soon, we were traversing an isolated road as we swapped more stories and experiences. The final kilometres was a trot in the dark highlighted by a purple-lit cage bridge, a ‘floating’ aid station manned by multiple Princess Leias and two steep sandy uphills.
Finally, traces of civilization appeared into view – street lights, houses, distant sounds. But it would take us almost an hour before the finish line beckoned. We came charging in as one flank with me holding the dinky Philippine flag over my headlamp. Among the 85K finishers, we were at the tail end but the cheering crowd and supporters were as animated and enthusiastic as they were in the morning, as Race Organiser Paul Charteris gave us a warm hug. Many of the 100K finishers, by this time were finishing in small groups, as midnight slowly crept in. Less than an hour later, our lone Filipina runner, Arlene Agulto, finished her 100K adventure while Kian finished his hours earlier.
And so culminates our journey which circled three lakes, explored forest reserves, entered enchanted territories we only used to dream of. This was New Zealand in its untamed, harsh and natural state we had experienced and immersed in that day. And for many of us who have found bliss and fairyland, this seems just the beginning of something big, incredible and exciting. See you soon Kiwiland!
Photography by Marceau Photography, Joseph Iric Mina & Tarawera Ultramarathon