In February I ran the “big Tarawera” and there was much talk of this “little Tarawera” at the end of the year. This was being run by the same remarkable people. They offered participants a little incentive to sign up for the second one. Eager and intrigued, we didn’t have to think about it for terribly long at all. Best race directors ever? Check. Best aid stations known to mankind? Check. Heart of an event so powerful you feel it? Check. Some of the most kick-ass trails in kiwi country? Check. The decision between marathon length and 50km was made (he for former, me for latter) and we were in. It is an unusual joke when the shortest distance is a marathon.
I had two main events for the summer planned. Little Tarawera in November (50km) and Big Tarawera again in February (100km). A very welcome late addition to this plan would have me running the bonus of the Kepler trail soon after (Asics, with so much gratitude for that precious entry).
The weeks prior to the start wasn’t ideal training. Perhaps it never is. Days were running out of hours, things in life were hard, tripping from a chair had me guarding a wonky knee, I didn’t feel fast, and I was mindful of keeping it cool so I could keep on running through the summer.
To heck with it. We were off to play in trails for a three-day long weekend. The drive north was bathed in sunshine and silliness. This boded well for what was ahead in channeling a light heart. We had the afternoon to gather race packs, greet friends, chill out at the holiday home, and do that little 2km run the evening before where you scan your body for every niggle while bouncing along like a tightly coiled spring. There was certainly spare energy at the edges after a quiet taper and cautious few injury weeks.
Race morning saw us trot to the start on foot. It dawned sunny and warm and beautiful. Aims of today were to enjoy the day and course and atmosphere, and to finish. If the running wasn’t to happen then I was confident I could stubbornly hike anything that remained and still soak up this pretty magical experience. Gear was all trusted. Best lululemon speed shorts under the sun. A tank top. My faithful little pack filled with nutrition (gels and a small handful of chocolate coffee beans), nuun (electrolyte drink) and my maps / elevation profile / distance splits cut out into slips of paper. Road shoes for what looked like good quality dry terrain. Studying well articulated course notes had helped enormously in what we might be expecting in the roller-coaster of the trail (thanks Kerry!).
The start line is in a field of bubbling geysers, Te Puia. People were electric in energy and nerves. We seeded ourselves halfway in the pack, mucked around in last minute adjustments, had goosebumps prickling at the pre start haka and with the gun we were off. This felt like we were floating along. Chris was urging me to charge ahead when I ready. It was cool, calm, congested and friendly. This is all sweet single trail. It was time to settle in, enjoy everything around me and remind myself why we were here. For the love of it.
The early crowds of supporters were a welcome steps surprise on many corners. The race director (Paul, you are a legend) pops up on many of these over the day. You could feel energy levels immediately lift. All early photos here I’m doing jazz hands, I’m beaming, I’m being told I’ve got way too much energy, and I’m quietly trying to tuck away those reserves for later. Hour 1 is busy, slow – not frustrating so but often single file, and generally flat leafy beautiful stuff.
It’s just over an hour before the 42 and 50 km courses separate. The dense bush trails move into a 4WD track still inside the forest. Ankles dance over some of the trickier parts. We continue on to a vast tract of farmland. It’s testament to this community event that it’s a collection of access across different lands that create the course. This is a sheep station. We climb, and climb, and climb, and descend, and descend, and climb, and climb, in undulating long grass. It’s absolutely striking. I enjoy the climbs. We get to the Woolshed aid station radiating with colour and volunteer energy. My joy of the aid station tables is immortalised in a photo where I look like a seven year old kid at Christmas. OMG bananas! And watermelon! And grapes! And oranges! OMG best day ever!
I completely lose track of all minutes and all miles here. Even four weeks onwards the overwhelming memory is of blue skies, grass, warmth, faces, scrunchy footsteps and this constant movement. I believe in a flow state. This and onwards to the next lake is the closest I know to getting to that pure flow. At some point during this a man cycled toward me with a paper cup of jet planes outstretched, “LOLLIES!“. Later I pass a man in a skeleton suit, and another man running in an actual suit. The flow continued.
Time for some logistics details of what the course was doing before I witter on about life. The aid stations clocked in at regular 7 kilometer intervals. This is an engineering feat in back country terrain. For the 50km this went Te Puia (start), Puarenga Nice, Pondy Vista, Green Lake, Woodstock Woolshed, Green Lake (again), Buried Village, Twin Streams, Wairua, Hot Water Beach (finish). The elevation profile for the course looks mountainous. It’s fine. It’s hilly, but all so varied and interesting that you’ll survive and grow your lungs a little. Each of these segments were so different visually and technically, and the challenge they presented.
It is also accessible to a lot of people. This may sound a crazy thing to say when we’re talking completing 42 or 50KM. It isn’t. There were walkers, and slower runners, and faster runners, and groups of friends together who were in for a collective achievement. No matter anyones personal backgrounds that day or their start line story: these were committed people who had gone all in for this challenge. There was purpose.
Hour 3, Hour 4.
The end of Woodstock farm, and this dreamy trail continues for what must be 9, 10, 11KM. Green Lake stands gleaming off on our right hand side throughout. I’m flying. We return back through the Green Lake Picnic station. We are about half way through now and it’s still early enough in the day for lots of smiles, chatter and friendliness. Legs are ticking over. Going past Blue Lake has me remembering the footsteps through there in times past. People gather there to cheer. We turn in the opposite direction to what we would in Big Tarawera, and get a momentary reprieve of a few very fast downhill road kilometres. (I can’t remember the last time I embraced road running as I did here).
Hour 4, 5
We whirl into Buried Village. Here there are cream teas waiting for us, honest to goodness cups of tea served with scones and jam and cream. This is connected to the history of the place. When the pink and white terraces were a natural geographical attraction on Lake Rotomahana, tourists would come cross country to see the wonders with Te Wairoa being a favoured stopping point for refreshments. We zoom through the carefully crafted walkways and I look to my right to see heritage cases with information on the Tarawera eruption that made this the Buried Village. As good as this tea and scones looks: it’s back to a banana for me, some gels and some nuts. Nothing silly. I’ve kept this up at well timed intervals to keep energy steadily soaring. My stomach thanks me for it as do my legs.
For all the caution and concern going into the day, the hours have been treating me kindly. A conservative first hour has given me a solid next couple of hours increasing in speed. I’m picking this up a gear into what will be at least a couple more hours toward the finish. The elevation profile looks cruel in it’s placement of hills. There are many in the middle and a few from here that continue to the end. I’m delighted about this, hill sadist that I am.
Buried Village turns into the Tarawera Trail. This is an incredible 15km stretch that will take us from here to the Hot Water Beach finish. It tickles at the edges of Lake Tarawera throughout. If there was to be one theme of the day, it is those jewel blue and green lake tones balanced by the blue of the skies and green of the forest. This is fast, stunning trail and at a decent clip. There are multiple sweet little aid stations here where I thank the volunteers profusely. Hi, thanks so much, have a great day! with waved hands and a big smile can say a lot in 2 seconds. The same to a fellow runner who will let you pass on skinny trail (or you can feel needs encouragement in having a bad time of things) is testament to what’s been created here. I truck up those final hills including the beastly one with 2 or 3 kilometres to go. We’re flying downwards again which means there is an end and that end is close. (Dammit. Don’t make this end).
The hill spits us out into a narrow lake side edge for a last sprint that’s always longer than you think. Swimming crowds and families and supporters and fast finishers congregate along here to yell encouragement and a GO GO GO EMMA GO GO GO. There is a final small hill to the finish arch where I laugh, and swear, and run all at the same time. Completion! Chris has finished the 42KM moments beforehand. Hugs. A medal is placed over me. I congratulate almost every one I know, congratulation many more people I don’t, and guzzle ginger ale like there’s no tomorrow. We lie horizontal on the grass in the shade letting the day wash over us. We stay there for an hour or two or more in soaking things up (including very cold water on legs), then making a boat trip back across the lake then a shuttle then a hitchhiked lift back to Rotorua (thanks so much Taupo guys!). I fall in love with some of this country all over again.
The day gave me a time I was pretty happy with and a top ten finish. I gained speed throughout the day. Five minutes faster would have had me on the stage. I know where I want to be next year. But: that is easy with reflection. Heck, I completed something that day that I didn’t know I would. I took away the expectations. I took nothing for granted. All that was left was joy.