February 2020

Tarawera 100 km

This race journey began as a ploy. Long story short, Lynne and I had planned to go to New Zealand during our sabbatical for me to work with Michael Martin, my former PhD student. But as our time in Squamish continued, and I became exceedingly comfortable, my general reluctance to travel took hold. Lynne could sense that this trip was never going to happen.

So she did what all clever partners of Ultra Runners do. She suggested I sign up for the Tarawera 102 km race. Truth is she practically stood over me on opening registration day. To ensure that I hit the register button. Which I duly did. And thus began an emotional and psychological and spiritual journey to train for and complete the race.

The first challenge in training was that we had a rather snowy, cold, and wet Squamish winter. My longest five hour run was in quite good conditions, with only an hour of rain. But my longer six hour run was in snowy conditions with a high of -12 and the windchill factor of -20°C.

Conditions just before we left for sunny New Zealand

Those were the obvious obstacles, but the greater  obstacle was my Mom's illness. My Mom was diagnosed with stage III cancer and had surgery during the summer of 2019. But in the early winter, she was diagnosed with stage four with metastases in her lungs.

There is a scene in Grey’s Anatomy, one of the early seasons, in which Grey tells Christina, a fellow surgical resident, that she (Christina) is her person. The person whom you go to when things are really bad, when you just need to talk, when you need someone to listen. My Mom is my person. 

When I was a young girl, I would  come back from school (where I was generally teased and bullied) and sit with my brother Tristan and Mom would open Nortons Anthology of English literature. And we three would sit and drink gun powder green tea and read poetry. Mom loved Gerard Manley Hopkins and Tristan and I did too. During long car rides, she would recount  stories from adult books she had read. And retell Polish fairy tales. When we travelled through Northern Europe in 1970 and 1971, we spent whole days in art museums. And, in Denmark, she gathered us kids onto a train for Elsinore Castle narrating Hamlet’s story. There are so many more vignettes of her opening up my psychic and intellectual worlds. 

Those days effectively ended when my brother died. And I grew up and left home. But all during my adult life, Mom was there talking to me on the phone, going on long walks to talk about difficult things. But now, the very very end of those days seems so very close. On every run, longer than a couple of hours, I would shed a few tears. For mom. And for me. 

I also had a new coach after 5 (good) years with Eric and Gary. At first, the training seemed weird and unfamiliar but gradually I was grateful that I was with Corrine from CTS because she handled my travel to Wolfville to see my parents so skillfully. Ditto my almost plantar fasciitis and (emotional) stomach. And she programmed in a 5 hour and a 6 hour long run - which increased my confidence. As I boarded the flight to Auckland, I felt strong, with no fatigue accumulated. And the taper was minor, which suits me much better.

Michael met me at the airport. Lynne  had taken a different flight as she was flying on points. True to form, I had planned a work day for the day I arrived. But the next day, Michael picked me up early, and we drove about 40 minutes to Bethell’s Beach. Where we had the most spectacular run. Though only a couple of hours, it felt very hard. It was the heat. Just such a contrast with snowy Canada. But the views were heart stoppingly beautiful.

me climb 2_BB
Climbing out the rutty trails near Bethell's Beach. Note that these same ruts ruled the trail from 60 km on in the race, making it hard to choose a descent path.

Michael and me on our last 2 hour run. First taste of heat.

On Monday, we drove to Rotorua where the race is held. It was 30° and I was seriously questioning my choice of a 100 km race in the rich, jungly vegetation of New Zealand in a heat wave. I had five more days to acclimatize. And did my best, running in the heat, sitting in hot rooms working with Michael.

WTC, the world triathlon corporation, bought the Tarawera race last year. While other runners moaned the commercialization, I was pretty sure that WTC would put on a well run, smooth event. The best half Ironman I ever raced was put on by WTC in Hawaii. And the race really rocked. True to form, the registration boded well. And I parted with a lot of money for a new pair of Hoka One One Evo Mafate 2 shoes. 

At race registration.

race poster
Race poster. All 3000 names were also on the t-shirt which I resisted buying in a false economy,

I woke up at 2ish on race morning. 5 hours sleep is actually quite good for me before a race. And we had to be at the lakefront where the busses departed by 430 am. It was hard getting on a bus and driving an hour to the start. Plus it had started to pour (really pour) rain. I tried to close my eyes and relax despite my Aussie seat mate chatting nervously about himself. At one point, I said “I’m closing my eyes now.” 

waiting to get on bus
Waiting to board the bus to the race start.

We arrived at Firmin Field in Kawera about 6 am and 5 or 600 of us crowded into a school gymnasium vying for the toilets. Finally the start drew near, coinciding with the end of the rainfall. We had been promised a Haku dance  by Maori. I believe it took place but the crowd of 600 in front of me prevented my enjoyment (or even perception) of it. The start was uneventful and then we were all plodding across a field in a conga line. Which was how we inched our way forward back to Rotorua for the next 5 or 6 km. The first 10 or so kilometres were flattish and easy. But the humidity had taken hold of me and I felt a bit heavy and plodding. Probably a good way to start what would turn out to be a longer race than expected.

gym before start
Crowding into the humid community centre before the start.

At the start line. I never saw the Haku.

Everyone talks about Tarawera as a runner’s race - which roughly translates into one in which runners can actually run (rather than power hike) for most of the way. But that is somewhat misleading for two reasons. First, there is a lot of elevation. Double that of Black Canyon 100 Km (though only half of WAM). Second, it was hot. At the back of the field, many of us were power hiking the early steeps though I ran some of them. I just feel better running up easy grades than hiking. But by 12 km, I had started to cramp. First in my calves, then later permanently in my quads. I worked the electrolytes. They helped but they never dissipated the muscle cramping fully.

The sun was hot but much of the race was shaded. Though the forest was hotter than out in the open, it prevented serious sunburn (plus I had SPF 50 on my arms and nose; New Zealand has a little hole in its ozone layer). Aid stations started to click by. At 11 amish, I peed in the forest. I didn’t pee again until 2 am on Sunday when we were back in our AirBnb in Ngogongtaha  - though I drank plenty. 

photo waterfalls
The only photo I took en route.

I passed 40 km in six hours which conformed exactly to my predicted schedule. 50 km in just over 8 hours; 58 km (and a second drop bag) came at 4:20 pm, again as predicted. There at Okataina, I passed some minutes leaning against a stone wall ploughing through my crowded drop bag trying to remember what to take. I had fortunately placed my poles in that drop bag. Until that point, I had been envious of the NZ and especially French runners who all seemed to have started with poles. From 40 km to 48 km the trail was rooty with a very narrow, precipitous single track that was simply not ‘runnable’. Those with poles had eaten up the more challenging terrain. The promise of poles kept me hiking with my hands on my quads. 

Just after Okataina at 58 km.

Leaving Okataina at 58 km, I now had poles and music coming out of my earbuds. Should have been a happy camper but the sadness hit me like a wall. 58 km was also the start of another wall, a 6 km straight up climb with strange ruts running through the trail, making it hard to choose a path. Still, I made relatively good time up the ascent; poles are my happy place as are steep climbs. The snow in Squamish had kept me on lower terrain and I suspect that the lack of steep training and the eccentric contraction training of the corresponding steep descents were what took out my quads and adductors. By 60 km, the suffering was in full gear. 

I was passing people but by the time I got to the aid station at 74 km, I was full on crying. Better to be alone so I didn’t linger there. Just long enough to pick up an email from both my sister Hedda and my Mom. They are my race angels, always following me, cheering me on. And I knew that Lynne was at the 86 km Aid Station. That kept me going. Until 84 km, I was still running slowly. But, as night fell (9ish), and I lurched towards Blue Lake Aid Station, I was started to really really stiffen. I was overjoyed to see Lynne there. 

Extreme fire hazard had made it impossible for crew to reach earlier aid stations. We found out just two days before the race that the only Aid Stations accessible by car would be the last two. Indeed, we runners were only allowed to race by the skin of our teeth. There had been no rain in the area since Christmas Day - until that short rainfall hours before the race started. The fires in Australia were warning enough of what could happen. 

Lynne had set up a chair at Blue Lake and laid out all of my nutrition choices. Before the race, I had steadfastly insisted I would not drink coke on this race. Now, I waved away all “healthier” choices and said “just fill my bottle with coke.” While I waited for the coke, I munched away at watermelon - which is truly the elixir of life in an ultra. There is a reason that they warm “beware the chair.” I tried to get up after about 10 minutes but my legs were in rigour. They were just not having it. Lynne pulled me up and I shuffled off promising glibly (and incorrectly) that I would be at Redwoods in 90 minutes. 

Blue Lake AS
Blue Lake AS before I arrived (which was just after dark)

It took me two hours to navigate mostly down 10 km of the most runnable terrain of the race. Using my poles, I hoisted myself up a last, very steep climb and then down steps that had 2 feet of elevation between each step. Nothing was moving as it should. Now runners whom I had blasted past shuffled by me. They were moving so slowly that it was painful to watch - except I was even slower. 

Finally I heard the happy sounds of Redwoods Aid Station. Lynne had been waiting for almost 2 hours and it was now midnight. She didn’t think I was going to make it and announced that she would walk me in. I lay on the grass eating watermelon and announced that I needed Mountain Dew. I added that I was certain that they would not have this quintessential North American drink. But they did. Mountain Dew has a special meaning for me. When my brother was dying, it was the only drink that made him feel better (it is loaded with caffeine and sugar). I literally had not had Mountain Dew since 1981 but I drank it now and got up announcing that I would walk it in fast by myself. And I did, hoofing over the last flat 7 km in about an hour. 

Redwoods Aid Station - which miraculously had Mountain Dew.

Some runners managed to shuffle past me - which proves it is always better to run than walk - but there was a certain satisfaction in fast walking across the geothermal vents with an almost full moon lighting up the night. Plus I had my amazing Kogalla lighting system. Funny thing: when I finally crossed the finish line in 18 hours, the announcer chirped on at considerable length about the Kogalla lights. There wan’t really much to say about me except that I finished.

Finisher. The clock says 21 hours but the 100 milers had started at 4 am.

Lynne was there, proudly waiting. And a little surprised that I had pulled it together to get myself there by 1 am. They weighed me at the end and then released me into a giant tent where Lynne poured me cup after cup of gluten free pumpkin soup (which rocked by the way). I lay down on the floor mats with my feet on the wall. Happy, just happy.

finisher inside tent
Inside the tent of happiness. Before the pumpkin soup.

My goal had been to break 17 hours. I was an hour later but surprisingly (for me) satisfied with my result. I knew how much suffering had gone down between 60 km and 100 km (my watch didn’t even click over the 100 km mark but I will take it on faith that the race is 102 km). Yogi Bear said it best: the only way out is through. 

two pairs of shoes
When we got back to the house, we saw Michael's beaten up Altras (to the right). I put my dusty Hokas right beside them.

The next day, we went back to the finish area to pick up a drop bag that had not arrived the night before (it never did) and watched the 100 milers finish. The last two hours of finishers… now they dug really deep. Lynne hardly ever cries but she cried then as people stronger than me actually ran across the finish line in 28˚C heat after running 100 miles. Funny but true: the Kiwi announcers call 100 milers “milers” - which seems the height of understatement.  

watching the milers
One of the last "milers" finishing.

Michael had successfully finished the 50 km race with his partner (also called Lynne) walking him the last 7 km from Redwoods. Sunday was a day of triumph for us as we had both conquered inner demons to get to the end.

Michael tshirt
Michael next day (before I even woke up).

On Monday, Lynne and I decamped for 4 days of relaxation on the Coromandel Penninsula on the Bay of Plenty. Where she caught a giant fish. And I chilled on the beach. 

beach bikini
The best part.

giant fish
Lynne caught a giant Kingfish.

To my new coach Corrine Malcom; I was super fresh for the race and have recovered the fastest yet from 100 km. You are not responsible for heat (or snow).
To my Mom, my sister Hedda and to everyone in my family and Lynne's family who cheered me on.
To Lynne especially for getting me here and keeping me going.
To Michael (and his Lynne) for making this work trip work.

beach pink shirt
I earned this hat - though didn't buy until the day after. Didn't want to jinx the race.

results summary
In the end, I was almost mid-pack. And 6/29 in my age group. I'll take it.

Made in RapidWeaver