Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tarawera Ultramarathon 2014, or the perils of running your first 50 miler 21 timezones away from home in a cyclone

Editor's note: This race recap was a year in the making. Ann and I ran Tarawera Ultramarathon (TUM) on March 15, 2014, and it has taken me a full year to chronicle all that happened during what was our longest run ever, the farthest from home, in the most dangerous weather conditions. It's long,  full of photos, and hopefully entertaining.

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With Ann’s sabbatical about a year away, we hatched a wild plan: we would run a trail ultra-marathon together in another country during her time off. Somehow, New Zealand became the obvious choice. There are tons of trails, long distance events, gorgeous landscapes and multi-day hikes for Ann’s vacation. We set about researching races, and quickly settled on the Tarawera Ultra Marathon because it’s one of the larger events, had a distance that was longer than we had raced but not too big of a leap, and appeared to be extremely well-organized.

A Maori carving near the entrance of Te Pua

We kept an eye on race day 2013, happy to see two prominent Americans win the top spots. Vibram and Injinji became sponsors, and Tarawera was added to the World Ultra Trail Running Series. The race was becoming a big deal.

Ann registered. I worked to try to make the trip feasible for my family. Ann scheduled her six week sabbatical and bought flights to New Zealand on a new, cheaper route through Hawaii that required an overnight stay.

A selfie after the race group photo, coincidentally capturing Kari's brother whom we hadn't yet met

The stopover in Hawaii gave me an idea. What if I could go run Tarawera, and meet up with my husband and child in Hawaii on the way back? Or go to Hawaii for a family vacation and then fly on to New Zealand? It sounds simple enough, but the details were difficult to align.

Two airlines fly from Honolulu to Auckland, and they each only fly three times a week. Combine that with crossing the international dateline (making New Zealand 20-21 hours ahead of us on the west coast of the US) and the need to drive three hours south of Auckland to the event by the day before, and time margins were slim. In addition, our Hawaii vacation would be with friends, so we had to ensure that everyone could get to the Big Island and I could meet them without making them wait.

The traditional haka pose: tongue out

Everything came together with roundtrip flights for family and friends to Hawaii; then a one-way ticket for me to return home from Hawaii with them; then my roundtrip solo flight from Honolulu to Auckland; then lining up a one-way flight for me to Honolulu (via San Francisco, so I could spend the morning with my family instead of an eight-hour layover in Honolulu); and finally a short hop from Honolulu to the Big Island, to get there just before everyone else arrived. And a not-too-fleabaggy hotel for an inconvenient overnight in Honolulu after returning from NZ.

And that was just to get there. Ann planned the accommodations, a trail run, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, cave tubing in Waitomo glowworm caves, and all of the other logistics—including her next five weeks seeing the beauty of New Zealand. I’m sitting on the plane from New Zealand as I write this, the day after our run, and I can still barely believe we pulled it all together (editor's note: I wrote the part through the line of asterisks on the plane, and slowly wrote the rest over the course of a year).

Ann flew to Hawaii on Thursday, 6 March, and spent the night in Honolulu. She flew out Friday and arrived in Auckland, NZ, Saturday night. I left on Saturday, 8 March, and flew from Portland to San Francisco to Honolulu to Auckland, each flight delayed independently and each connection barely made. I arrived, rank with stress, early Monday morning.

Sage Canaday, the 2013 winner, is welcomed to the marae during pƍwhiri (welcoming ceremony)

The plan was for me to pick up a rental car and drive to our downtown hotel. Having visited New Zealand twice before but never driven on the left-hand side of the road, I was nervous to attempt Monday morning rush hour, fresh off 21 hours of travel.

But I didn't have to. The automatic doors whooshed open just past customs, revealing Ann's husband John, sitting on a bench reading. I almost couldn't believe my eyes.

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Sage and race director Paul Charteris exchange a hongi with the marae warriors 

We made it to the house in Rotorua, which was absolutely luxurious. Perched on the lake, with cozy window seats, a gorgeous kitchen, bedrooms each with their own bathroom, and a hot tub. Damn! We ate dinner at Fat Dog Cafe and went to the grocery store for supplies. Had a final good night of sleep before nearly a full day spent getting ready for the race.

In the morning, we all went to Te Pua for the marae-- a traditional Maori welcoming ceremony. Ann & I were electrified to people-watch all the runners, and yes, you could tell who they were.

Sage Canaday, last year's winner, acted as our warrior-champion, and after his ceremonial welcome we all crowded up to the long house for a group photo. We somehow got squeezed right between Sage and-- we would discover immediately after the picture was snapped-- Barry, our friend Kari's brother.

Sunbeams through the steam of the geothermal pools

I met Barry in August (2013) at a pre-Hood to Coast event. He was visiting for that race from New Zealand, and I was utterly shocked when I mentioned that I planned to run Tarawera and he said he was already signed up. What are the odds?

Seeing Barry was great. We hung out for a bit, walked around the geothermal park grounds, and then decided that Ann & I would go with him to the expo and race briefing, rather than make our non-running travel companions suffer through it with us.

I spent a long time at the UltrAspire booth, having seen their hydration packs online but never the chance to actually try them on. I took notes for later purchasing, because they're an American company anyway, and DAMN that stuff is more expensive in NZ.

Geothermal mud pits
We picked up our shirts and packets, and sat through the required medical briefing. It was terrifying. I had been using topical ibuprofen on my wasp sting, but after the doctor's diatribe against ibuprofen, I raised my hand to ask about topical applications and was soundly trounced. It had only been four days since the sting and my ankle was still swollen, but I swore off "vitamin I" on the spot. The tales of liver failure and peeing brown were that terrifying.

We weighed in and hung around a bit longer, but had John pick us up pretty soon after that. Back at the house, we set out to perfectly pack drop bags for two aid stations: one just past halfway and one at the finish line. This was to be our longest run by 20 miles-- our first longer than 32 miles-- so it was particularly painstaking to figure out what we'd need.

We also tried on our event shirts. I had requested a small and Ann got a medium. As a female, you never know if you're going to get a nice shirt you can wear (women's) or a "unisex" shirt that will fit awkwardly (men's). They were really nice women's shirts, but Ann's was huge. We decided to exchange shirts when we went to put in our drop bags.

Espresso out of the back of a van. Why do we not have this in the US?

After much hemming and hawing, we were ready. John took us back to the expo and we put our bags in the appropriate piles. Then we went in to exchange shirts. The woman who got us a smaller shirt asked if we knew about the course change. Hubba-what?! While we knew about Cyclone Lusi, we just thought it would just be annoying to run in the rain. Hearing that the 100k and 85k were cut down to 69k felt like a physical blow.

And instead of being a point-to-point run through a wild forest and ending at hot springs, we would run a loop and then an out and back. We pressed the woman for more details, but she didn't have much. She wasn't even sure if there would still be drop bag service. I felt hollow, kicked in the gut. Struggled to hold back tears. While moments before I have been scared of the distance, now I ached to have it back. I hadn't come all this was for a mere 69k!

Dramatic, yes, but emotions are high before a big run and we were far from home. We rushed to fish our drop backs out from the piles, telling others who had just arrived. John picked us up and we were distraught. The uncertainty-- knowing that the course might be changed yet again in the morning when the cyclone hit-- was unbearable.

At the start: I look thrilled, Ann does not.

Back at the house, we made dinner and ate a nice, big pasta meal with everyone. Then we prepared our final things-- the big decisions about what to wear and carry. I was trying and failing to snap together the baffle inside my new 2L hydration bladder (it's supposed to minimize sloshing). John helped me, got it, and filled the bag with water.

"Is it supposed to do that?" he asked. I looked up from jamming food into my pack pockets to see water streaming from the bladder. I couldn't believe it. I had only used it two or three times! I couldn't be mad at John, but where exactly does one get a new 2L hydration bladder at 9pm on a Friday night before a race, 7,000 miles from home? I started laughing hysterically, willing myself not to panic.

Luckily, John had his hydration bag. It was older, and he had removed the soft bite valve, but it held water. To use it I would have to bite down on the hard plastic tube, turn the lock to let water come rushing out, close the lock, and dump out the water left in the hard tube. Not ideal, but better than the alternative.

Ann & I went to bed, emotionally exhausted and anxious as hell.

Power of the PEK

I awoke before my 4:15am alarm and listened to the wind gusting against the house in the pitch black. Re-made decisions about what to wear and carry for the n-th time, dressed quickly, and rushed downstairs with my gear. Ann & I checked the weather forecast incessantly while packing, eating and pacing. Then it was time to go.

John drove us out to the forest start. The trees swayed wildly like drunken dancing, but it wasn't raining yet. John dropped us off, and we tried to vent our anxious energy by using the bathrooms-- gorgeously wrapped with cut-metal designs of local flora and fauna, lit up from inside with bright colors-- and trying to get an update on the course and conditions. I discovered mobile coffee shops set up in the back of vans, and got us a coffee to share.

Then the announcements started and the crowd congealed. The course would in fact be 60k and 74k, and we could make the decision with an extra loop right at the beginning. Ann and I didn't even have to discuss it. We were thrilled with the additional 5k. It felt like a gift.

The starting line in the redwoods

There were more announcements and a song we couldn't hear well. Everyone was giddy; a friendly bunch but apprehensive and ready to start. And then it was time. We walked under the blow-up arch and trotted down a long, white dusty lane. The line of people started and stopped in bursts, as crowds reached various sets of stairs; there were lots!

We wound our way up a hill and could see the lights of Rotorua below. A fine misty rain began, and it actually felt refreshing since we had come from our northern hemisphere winter and had been quite warm on our previous runs here.

We took it easy, chatting with fellow runners including a friendly man in a tutu and wings, carrying a magic wand. After an loop of about 15k (~9.3 miles) we came to the decision point: a hastily handwritten sign pointed onward for 60k, or back to the loop for the longer 74k route.

Ann, sometime during our initial loop
Our best race photo ever (which were free)

With barely a moment of thought, we headed back on the loop. The second one was also pretty uneventful, but the weather was deteriorating steadily with increasing winds and insistent rain. Most of this first 30k was through a forest pretty similar to back home in Oregon, so we were excited to come to a new part of the course that edged a lake.

Sadly, there wasn't much to see in the driving rain, but the change of scenery was welcome. The place names were unfamiliar to us and therefore difficult to remember, so combined with the confusion of the last-minute course change, I remember very few of the aid stations. One I will never forget, though is Okarera, which was also our finish line.

Those are the course marker ribbons

We came down, out of the forest where it was relatively calm, onto the shore of a lake where the wind was pushing the poor aid station volunteers-- all gussied up in Santa costumes-- nearly sideways. It was set up for a big party, trying desperately to not be ruined by the cyclone, and we were sad to leave.

Here the course went uphill on roads for a while, until we hit another aid station-- this one with more amazing, costumed volunteers and buzzing with yellow-jackets-- before heading back into the forest. This section, on a dirt single-track rapidly turning into a mud creek, was a slog. It began to dawn on us that as people started to run back the same way, the trail would be thrashed by the time we came back through.

A glimpse of a lake

We started running down a long hill, and tried to encouragingly greet all the people coming back up. Headed downhill, I was in a great mood. I couldn't quite comprehend why some of my calls of "good job" were met with such stony faces. But I would soon find out.

Down at the very bottom of the hill, after what seemed like ages, we came to the turnaround at Okataina Lodge. I was out of water in my pack and so happy to finally head back. But as I sidled up to the aid station table, a woman asked me if we had done the 2k out-and-back. WHAT! I am sure my expression changed like a flipped switch. I was so upset that I didn't even want to fill my pack with water. I just wanted it to be over.

I grabbed Ann from where she was about to enjoy a sandwich and told her that we had 2k more. Nearly despondent, we headed out.

Why, yes, that's a cyclone coming in

That 2k shall live in infamy. It was actually 2k out, and then 2k back again, much to our dismay. And it was in such mucky, sloppy, awful mud, with people headed in both direction on the narrow trail, that the going was extra slow. We finally got to the turnaround and were rewarded by a volunteer-- a sole man with a bucket of black scrunchies-- with said hairbands to wear on our wrist to show we had made it. We turned back around to navigate the 2k return.

At my absolute lowest point, staring straight down only at my feet, I heard strains of the song "Eye of the Tiger." Looking up, I saw the be-tutu-ed man we had chatted with near the start of the race. Seeing him lifted our spirits more than we thought possible. We said hello, picked up our sorry selves, and headed back to Okataina.

I think Okataina was the turn-around

Once there, we got our packs filled and were stuffing our faces, when I heard a volunteer say that they were shutting down the aid station in 15 minutes with the cutoff time. Terrified to have come this far and possibly not get to finish, I ran over to Ann and beseeched her to hurry. Ann is normally no lollygagger, but I swear she seemed to just be hanging out, relaxed. I panicked and hurried her along.

Then came the long, very long, indescribably long climb back up that hill that I had been so cheerful while descending just a short while ago. I finally understood what an asshole I had been, happily smiling at the people who luckily hadn't had the energy to smack me as they slogged up that wretched incline. Basically we walked the whole way. There was only a small trickle of people headed there other way, down; the last of the pack. And then there was no one. We were at the end of the runners and racing the cut-off time.

Similar rolling hills to California

Between the top of the hill and the aid station with the yellow-jackets that marked the end of the trail and start of the road (only 2.8k to the finish) was the longest run of my life. The trail was running water and slick mud, so treacherous that it took every ounce of concentration to plan where to place your feet. We kept thinking we must be close, then we would see people who would tell us that it was another 14k. That seemed to go on for hours.

One particularly scary section was a short, steep little embankment that had become a mudslide, where sandbags made a temporary way to cross a rushing creek. On the way out it hadn't been so bad, but I dreaded it on the way back. There was nothing to hold on to and I worried about sliding down into the water. People were covered in mud as they tried to cross. We traversed like we were skiing and made it safely.

Summing up how I felt on the slog back

When we got to the final aid station, I knew we would make it. We shoveled the remains of some sodden potato chips into our mouths and took off down the road. I have never been so happy to run on road. It was solid and dependable. So nice. I like to think we ran pretty fast on this part. Thankfully there is no video evidence, but we were elated to be finishing this so it actually felt pretty good.

All of a sudden we were following the signs to run on grass through the lakeside park at Okarera. We turned a bend, and there was the finish line, with the race director, Paul Charteris, waiting. We finished and he gave us both big hugs. I immediately started sobbing, filled with an intense flood of conflicted feelings of relief to be done, joy at having completed this crazy adventure, and sadness that it was over.

On the final stretch, a bit of road and this sign. You're telling me!

John was there to pick us up-- with my passport, which had arrived while we were running (editor's note: this is another long and crazy story)! We each had a beer and then went back to the house to take long, hot showers. If the weather hadn't been so atrocious, the party at the finish line looked like it would've been fun. The long-suffering volunteers were surprisingly cheerful, and we tried to let them know how much that meant to us.

Overall, this race was a mental rollercoaster. We were so fortunate to have no incidents-- no falling in the mud, twisting ankles, tweaked knees. But the mental hurdles-- the cyclone's landfall, changing course, and extra "2k," all 7,000 miles away from home-- made for our biggest running adventure yet. While we weren't keen to return to Tarawera, we would love to do another race put on by Paul Charteris, and continue to dream of New Zealand's massive, gorgeous, well-kept trail system.

Finished with the event and emotionally overwhelmed

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