On 6 February 2016, I completed the Tarawera Ultra Marathon. It was my first ultra. I came out mostly unscathed, albeit muddy, drenched, tired, with two small blisters, minor chafing under my arms from the last hour of running in the rain and some scratches on my right ankle from nearly falling down a bank into the river. But I was (somehow) full of smiles and laughs, having conquered 62.7km in tough conditions on a tough day.
It is two weeks later, and I am still somewhat speechless about the experience. When I crossed the finish line, and even the day following, I was completely overwhelmed. My thoughts were scattered, between “oh my gosh did I just do that” and “that was incredible” to “that was terrible why on earth did I sign up to this” and “thank god it is over”. Over the following days, people would ask me how it went. I changed from “it was tough” to “it went well” and then eventually to “really good”, “great” and “amazing”. But at the same time, I struggle to find much more to say about it, because it was such a huge day, a huge experience and such a huge effort that I can’t truly put into words what it felt like and what it meant to me.
I know it happened, I know I did it. I crossed that finish line – I have the medal to prove it. But I’m still struggling to connect my memories with the detail from that day, the detail of each hour, each kilometer, what happened, how I felt, what the course looked like and what I experienced. A lot of the day is a blur, where it merged into one, and I have little flashes of parts of the day. Running an ultra puts your body and mind under such extreme stress, that of course you can’t have a perfect memory of what happened.
All I know is that it took me 9 hours, 33 minutes and 10 seconds to run the entire 62.7km. This was longer than my goal (my secret personal goal was under eight hours, the goal I told people was between eight and nine). But you know what? I finished. That was the main goal – to complete the race, to make it across the finish line pain free, to survive. To mentally and physically push through, and to prove to myself that I was capable of pushing my body to the brink, and that I was capable of testing my limits and joining the ultra community. Of doing something I had never done before – a trail event, an ultra marathon, an event involving hills! Eating food while running, and enjoying beautiful New Zealand scenery along the way (professional photos that show off parts of the course can be found here).
A lot of people didn’t finish – they either didn’t start or didn’t make it over the finish line. There was a tropical storm to battle with that meant flights were delayed or cancelled. The forecast in the week leading up to the race was wet – rain rain and more rain. I kept hoping the rain would pass, but it was not to be. I am more of a tropical person, who thrives running in the heat and sun. So I was disappointed about the rain forecast.
The rain also meant that we were required to carry compulsory gear – seam sealed jackets…another worry of mine. I had a jacket that I was 95% sure was seam sealed, but I didn’t want to be pulled out half way through the race because the volunteers didn’t agree with me. My jacket was also a bit heavy, and I wanted to have as light of a pack as possible. I had nightmares about my jacket and the fact that it might not be sufficient. I even showered in it for 10 minutes to see whether it was truly seam sealed (and it appeared to be…the water didn’t penetrate through!). But still…I didn’t want to risk it. So I splashed out on a $300 Marmot running jacket at the expo the day before the race (I saved $100…totally justifiable). A big spend, but it put my mind completely at ease. Totally worth it, just for that mental element.
And because it had rained the day before the race, and the morning of, this meant a LOT of mud. I hadn’t trained in mud, and many people (including me) struggled with it. I had trained in rain, in the wind, in the sunshine, in the dark, on trails, on road, flat and hilly…but I hadn’t combined rain, dark, trails and hills all in one. It slowed me down in sections, I almost lost a shoe once or twice, and I had to take extra care when running over some of the flatter muddy parts. Don’t get me wrong it was fun at times – it made it more of an adventure and also gave my mind something to focus on. But it also meant that some downhill sections were dangerous, with people sliding and falling over. The course essentially became a slip and slide at points, and while I managed to stay upright the whole way through, there were a few near misses. We also had the heat and humidity to battle against…like I said above, it was a tough day.
Before I get any further I will clarify one thing, something I didn’t know or think about prior to training for an ultra: I did not run the entire 62.7km. I was not ‘running’ for 9 1/2 hours. I was at aid stations for portions of it. And I did walk sections. Everyone walked sections. It is a ‘run’ but that definitely doesn’t mean you are ‘running’ the entire time.
Also – no one told me there would be THAT MANY HILLS. I knew there would be hills, but there were so many of them. So many ups. So many downs. Just over 2,000 meters worth. I think I was willfully ignorant of the course because had I known and understood what the course would involve, I never would have signed up. Hills for days.
In terms of my preparation, I went into the race feeling so much fitter, stronger and happier than I had ever been for another event. I had trained really well. I was thrilled with my training. I had put so much effort and time into it and had really dedicated three months to training. As part of this, I had built up a strong level of lower body strength. I worked on my weaknesses. I ran various different trails. I had even run 55km a few weeks previously and had gotten my nutrition on track. I had trialed a number of different foods to determine what worked and what didn’t. I had logged hundreds of hours of training. I had gone through some stressful moments where my work life, my personal life and the demands of training were all too much, but I came through the other end stronger and more determined.
I had previously experienced a dark moment during my 55km run where I stopped, sat down and cried, and didn’t think I could go on. But I had survived that moment, and I thought my mind was as tough as it could ever be. I had stuck to my training plan 95% – which I was incredibly proud of (no one sticks to a training plan 100%!). I made myself do nearly everything Greig told me to do, even though I disliked some of the plyometric jumping exercises, I was forced to run on days where it was hot (and I would have preferred to be at the beach) or raining or when there was 100km/hour gale wind. I was so prepared, and I went into the race with that mentality of “you can do this, your mind and body is ready.”
In a nutshell: It was a tough day, but an amazing day. I had my dark moments, but not nearly as dark as I expected. I realized that my mind isn’t as tough as I had expected – that nothing can properly prepare your mind for an ultra marathon. But in saying that, I also had some amazing highs and great experiences. While I was disappointed to have taken 9 hours 33 minutes to finish, I had to remind myself “You signed up. You ran it. You finished. You are amazing – who cares about the time!” It was also my first ultra marathon. And my first off road event. And really, to put my time into perspective, I was 19th woman out of 132 that finished. I was 101 out of 322 men and women finishers. The 19th woman last year finished in 8 hours 32. So I feel pretty great about that. I was in the top 30% of all participants, and the top 15% of women finishers.
The night before: Race jitters.
After attending the race expo, registering, attending a race briefing (where the overall message was: be prepared for rain and bring compulsory gear), checking out the start line and taking it pretty easy otherwise, I realize that I need to wake up at 4am. That meant that dinner needed to be eaten around 6pm, and ideally we would be asleep at 9pm. I cook dinner around 6:30pm: a tofu, broccoli and mushroom stir fry, with quinoa, washing it down with lots of water and electrolyte drink. Hydration hydration hydration.
I received text and facebook messages of good luck – I can’t thank everyone who messaged me enough. It was so uplifting to go into the event knowing I had so much love and support around me. It helped tremendously. I also received a message from my Mom about my race number – it was the same as her birthday. So that in itself made it a bit more special, as I felt like I was carrying a piece of her with me along the day.
I set out everything I need in the morning, having already packed and sent off a drop bag for the Okataina aid station (which had clean socks, a fresh buff, a change of shorts, singlet, underwear, extra gels, extra frooze balls, face wipes). I didn’t want to forget anything so I write a list of what I planned to eat on the day, ensuring I had enough. I give a spare pair of socks to Rob for the Blue Lake aid station (if needed) and pack a bag of clothes for after the race. I make sure my watch is charged, my iPhone playlist is up to date and I foam roll and stretch. Then at 9pm, Rob and I hopped into bed, I watch part of a TV episode to try and keep my mind calm, and I was asleep around 9:30pm.
2am: I wake up, wide awake, only to find I am awake too early…time to go back to sleep.
4am: The alarm goes off.
I wake up, don’t want to get out of bed, one because it is so damn early, two because I am nervous about what the day will bring. I finally get up, shower, and get dressed. I taped my big toes to prevent blisters, put on sunscreen (just in case) and also the bracelet my sister gave me for my birthday, which is my name in morse code, and a little keepsake reminding me of her, to help me through any dark times I may experience. I have a cup of coffee, two pieces of Burgen toast with peanut butter (one with jam the other with banana) and some water. I watch part of an episode of The Bachelor to try and keep my mind off the race and to help me eat. I make a PB&J sandwich (no crust), pack a banana into my pack, double, triple and quadruple check that I have everything I need. Hugs, photos and positive words are shared by all in our house as us three girls get ready for the 6am start.
5:20am: Rob drives us to the start line. The traffic is crazy, it is raining, and there are so many people. I’m nervous but excited. Not scared. Not worried. Just apprehensive. Rob gives me a huge hug and gives me positive, uplifting and motivational support before he leaves me at the start line.
5:40am: I weave through the crowd towards the front of the pack…trying to get my Garmin watch to connect to the satellites. No luck (tip for next time – connect it at the house the night before, and the morning before, not 20 minutes before the race amongst 1000 other runners trying to do the same thing).
I stand there nervously, keeping my legs moving, feeling the rain falling down. Paul Charteris gives a safety message, and words of encouragement for the day. I love the feeling at the start of a race. My first marathon, in Jacksonville Florida, it was pitch black, and we all sang the national anthem. It sent shivers up my spine. At Tarawera, there is a Maori performance of sorts, and a buzz that you can almost feel it running through your body. I’m no longer nervous, I’m excited. I can’t wait to run off into the forest ahead.
It only takes about 30 seconds to get over the start line – some races it takes much longer. We head off in a pack, and before I know it our flat section starts to go uphill. We climb through native bush, up and down, and experience mud for the first time in the race. People’s spirits are high, there is laughing, joking, talking, people are going at full speed ahead (me included). It is pitch black and our headlamps guide us. My eyes surprisingly work well in the dark, probably because there are so many other headlamps around me.
After about 5.5km, I am forty (ish) minutes in, and my Garmin FINALLY connects and starts tracking my run. We come out of the woods and throw our headlamps into a box. We also see our first spectators – a group of people cheering us on. I’m feeling good.
We go back into the woods, and soon enough hit Blue Lake (about 10km in). I’ve been running for about an hour and twenty minutes now. There are more spectators, standing in the rain, with umbrellas and rain coats. People cheering and saying “Go Jen”. Rob is there too – so good to see a friendly face, even though at 10km, I don’t really need it. Just nice to know he is there. I then see the lake – man the lake looks huge. I know it is only 5-6km around, but really, we have to run it all!
We join up to well-formed walking tracks, which are slightly undulating, mostly narrow, and run the entire way around Blue Lake. About 7/8 of the way around, we pop out at the road and there are volunteers checking our seam sealed jackets – Mine is in my bag, I have to stop and say “in the pack in the pack, that zipper!” hoping he doesn’t ask to take the entire jacket out and view it. Luckily he pulls a portion out, and says I am good to go. I keep running, reaching the Blue Lake aid station at 16.4km (which requires a few 100m running along the beach).
I grab a cup of water, I fill up one of my water bottles and grab a banana and a watermelon. I then drop the banana and watermelon, so have to go back for more…I say hi to Rob (no real niceties here…it was “Hi, open this pocket, grab my SOS, don’t need socks, yes it’s wet, all going well.” Poor thing) and kept running. I am at two hours now.
Hour 3 – Blue Lake to Millar Road (2:04 to 3:03):
This portion was a lot of road running… I begin to struggle mentally, knowing that I won’t see a familiar face until the very end, as Rob won’t be at any of the next aid stations. That in itself is a blow that I have to get over. It helps that there are people standing on the road and outside their houses cheering us on. There are flat portions which are great, and I take this opportunity to push a bit harder. I’m focused – the first 15km I was caught up by what was going on, now I focus internally to carry through and keep going. I see a friendly face, Alan, and run up to him and say hello – we chat briefly, and it is nice to see someone I know. He tells me to push on and not be held back by him, because my strength is the road (I remember to tell him later my strength isn’t road…it is flat, whether on road or off road!) but with those words I push off ahead, knowing how much off road running is to come.
I reach the Millar Road aid station. It is manned by people dressed as Santa Clause – and it is such a party! I grab a cup of coke, deciding ‘why not’ and guzzle that down, just as a photographer is yelling “Jen Jen look here Jen!” (with me thinking “oh god please don’t take a photo of me eating or drinking coke!!!”. However I look up and smile – laughing in the process. It’s crazy how little things like that stick with you, and make your day. Alan catches up as I am eating some watermelon and filling up my water. We grab a photo with the photographer, and Alan sets off ahead of me. I am soon after, running past Austin Powers before entering into the forest – I pass a sign that says 18 kilometers to go – mentally that sign and warning haunted me for the next portion, knowing how far there was to go with no one else around.
We set off into the woods and the scenery and landscape is quite different in this section. It also changes at various points – we are in the woods, we are in the open, we are on mud, dirt, then a very light clay section – and there are two solid and gradual climbs. In other words – I was in hell. I set off good, running pretty strong, happy, focused, and I put my playlist on – cue “Midnight City” and “We Own the Sky” by M83.
This was a long slog. I expected it to take me two hours – it took me just under three hours. I tried to focus on all the hard work I had put in during training, telling my legs they were strong enough and could do it. But they were tired, they knew how much there was still to go. I passed a few people, a few people passed me…it was hard to keep going mentally and physically. I had to force myself to stop looking at my watch because it was depressing how slow this section went. However, I needed to keep tabs on it to make sure I was eating. During this section, I had a gel, a banana, another gel, some frooze balls – I was beginning to feel sick, the gels were messing with my stomach. The coke was also playing up, a bit too bubbly. My shoulders hurt, my legs were tired. I also missed people. There were no supporters, no one cheering us on – it was getting hard. I want to stop but know I can’t = I am in the middle of no where. Even if I want to stop and pull out, I have to keep going to get out of the woods. I have a brief moment where I want to cry, but I tell myself to pull it together. While this feels difficult, it is nothing compared to the despair I felt in Makara MTB Park a month ago. That helps.
At about five hours in, I see pale pink balloons hanging from the trees – that little moment is magical. I look up. I smile. A feeling of happiness and joy floods into my heart and mind. Just ahead are two people who had hiked 5km in from the next aid station, with a sign that says five km to go – they were cheering us all on, despite the rain. I can’t explain how good it feels to see people – to know that this part is nearly over.
After that came the descent – we pretty quickly come down 450ish meters. This was the hill I had been warned about – the one that ruins knees – the one I had been training to beat. It is muddy, but it is also (finally) fun. It is a symbol of that portion being over, with people, and an aid station, up ahead. The trail itself reminds me of Wilton Otari Bush, and I hoon down. So happy to go down hill – I speed past others taking it slowly, just wanting to get it over. I feel great – no knee pain, no soreness, no tightness over those kms.
Okataina Aid Station: YES. I was out of the woods!! To a HUGE crowd – the biggest and best aid station yet.
My knees hadn’t given in, my TFL and IT band hadn’t played up. And there was food! I had salt and vinegar chips, watermelon, a banana, ginger beer. I found my drop bag and sat down, wiping my face (best idea ever to include face wipes in my bag!) and changing my socks. Oh my gosh – fresh socks. Magic. Brought my mood up so much! And just to sit down! I was in heaven. I took my camelback bladder out of my back, knowing I only have 9ish km between each aid station to go, so I can rely on my two water bottles. I chatted to some other runners here, I was taking my time. I then asked for a peanut butter sandwich, I grabbed this and set off.
Hours 6 and 7 (Okataina to Humphries Bay):
As I leave the aid station, people cheer “Go Jen” “You got this Jen” and “doing so well Jen”. My legs feel great. Better than they had felt all day. I am also very happy that I removed the camelback from my backpack – my bag feels lighter, I feel faster, and I feel more mobile. I feel great….that is until I try to eat my peanut butter sandwich. The volunteers used Pics peanut butter on white bread, instead of Fix & Fogg on wholemeal bread (what I had trained with). And there was too much peanut butter in it. I bite into it and chew…and chew…and chew…for a good five minutes until determining there was no way that I can stomach it….I can’t swallow it. It was heart breaking – what do I do? Do I hold this sandwich for the next 10km? Do I throw it and litter? Do I keep trying? I drank more water to help wash it down with – to no avail. I then freaked out – I need food, I need fuel, I need to eat this. I decide in the end, to discard it – the peanut butter was dripping onto my hands, and I couldn’t digest that. Bye bye sandwich.
Hours 6 and 7 I pass a lot of people. I stop caring – we are all struggling, passing is no longer a win.
Hours 8 and 9 (Humphries Bay to Tarawera Outlet):
This section is beautiful. I am running along a lake, through the forest – and some parts in the forest make me feel like I am in a fairy tale. My right hip flexor starts to feel tight, so I stop to stretch it – someone stops to ask if I am ok – I am, just stretching. I am also dying to pee – but the track is so narrow – there is a hill on my left and a lake on my right…no where to hide. I keep going – my music helping my mind escape as much as possible. I reach the Humphries Bay aid station at 49.2km – about 7 hours and 50 minutes into my run – this aid station is 70s galore! There is all the usual offerings, plus pizza. I can’t think of anything worse! I told my friend Lauren I would have a bite of one, for her, but there are no vegetarian options. I pass. I eat a bit more solid food here than I had planned on doing, just because the gels are starting to make me feel ill, and starting to get too sweet for me.
I reach 55km and think “Yes! Home straight! This is the longest you have ever run – enjoy it!” I get a bit teary. It is overwhelming knowing that I am now running more than 55km, and also that I only have 7ish km to go. I can’t explain that feeling. Those emotions, and that feeling of achievement, helped me power the remaining 7km.
I get to the Tarawera Outlet aid station at 57.3 – There are only 5km left, so I don’t bother stopping – I have enough water, I can do this, my mind is completely focused. I run straight through the aid station, actually bumping into people and a volunteer yells out “Clear the way runner coming through” before giving me a high five. My mind is completely focused now – I am going to finish this. I know I should probably eat or have a gel, but I only have 30 minutes left (by my calculations) – I tell myself I have enough fuel to get through. And I do.
From that point on, I run my heart out. I give it everything. It is mostly down hill, with a few short sharp uphills – I run straight up those and straight down. I am doing 5 minute kms at some points. I am on fire. I think back to the 3km race pace run I did a few days previously – I now know why I did that – to help me smash out the last three km today. I feel happy, positive, determined. I feel like I am in a race against the clock. And I want to win.
I pass so many people – yelling out “on your right” – they stop and let me go by, telling me good luck. I am on cloud nine. I then hit stairs – who on earth puts a set of 20 steps in the middle of the forest! Only to walk up, go across a bridge of 5m, and then have to come back down again. And in the last few km of the race! WHAT IS THIS!!! I race up, but get stuck behind someone coming down. I try my best to hold back and be polite, but in my head I’m thinking “hurry up hurry up hurry up MOVE MOVE MOVE”. Soon we are down the bottom again and I’m off. I look at my watch – only 1km to go. You got this.
I pass the falls on my right – I think how beautiful it is, but I don’t have time to stop and take a photo, I have to finish. I stop listening to my music, and I hear people. I hear Tim speaking on the microphone. I see a few pacers who have walked into the forest to meet their runners. And I start seeing signs – 500m, 300m, 100m, 50m…I run. I run hard and fast.
9:33:10: I come through the forest, past the finish line and into the crowd of people.
I can’t stop! I run right past Tim and the woman giving out medals, and have to be called back!!!! I turn around, and receive my medal. Rob jumps over the fence and gives me a hug – I am so glad to see him. Tim asks me how my day was. I (believe) I tell him it was tough, but I enjoyed it. And that I am really glad it is finished. I am all smiles, I am so happy. I can’t believe I am living this moment – I am standing at the finish line of the 62.7km Tarawera Ultra, with a medal around my neck. A finisher. A happy, uninjured, strong finisher.
I can’t remember much from that moment – what I said, what I did. I just remember being so incredibly grateful to Rob for being there, standing in the rain for two hours waiting for me. Knowing he was at the finish line helped me run those last kms faster – I was dying for a big hug, and the faster I ran, the faster that happened. I also remember feeling so grateful to everyone I ran with on that day, who put themselves out there, and tested their own limits. And to my friends, family, colleagues and supporters – everyone who believed in me and put up with me. And to the volunteers, the organizers, the supporters.
Thinking back to the info night that I attended mid-2015, Paul Charteris was right. It is a tough day. It is amazing in parts. It sucks in others (he didn’t lie or sugar coat it). But it also changes you. It sticks with you. And in many instances, it is life changing. I learned so much about myself in the process. Immediately after the race, I decided there was no way I was going to do it again. But I’ve already decided I am returning for 2017, to complete the 62.7km once more. Who knows, one day I may do the 100km. But now I know what to expect, I know what the day entails, and I want to go back and take it on once more.