Tarawera 100 Miler (165.2km):
100 Mile # 3
Date:February 13, 2021
The Tarawera 100 Miler (165.2km) was the culmination of lots of training. Even though I had done five ultra marathons in the last four months, you can never take a 100 miler for granted. Having done the Tarawera 100 miler in 2019, I knew what to expect. 165km is a long way and the thought of running through the night never sits comfortably with me. Once again, I had been roped in by Dr Andrew Stanley. Entering the 100 miler seemed like a good idea months ago but now a sense of impending doom was building. Finishing a 100 miler is one thing. But recovering from a 100 miler is equally daunting and the prolonged post race recovery weighed heavy on my mind. I made the trip to Rotorua with my wife Courtney (who was also participating in the 50km option) and the rest of my family. To immerse ourselves in the pre-race atmosphere, we attended the official Powhiri (welcome) from the Te Arawa tribe at the Te Aronui a Rua Marae in Te Puia. We then stayed the night at the Stanley residence in preparation for the early 4AM race start. Dr Stanley as per usual, preferred an early start so he set his alarm for just after 1AM. Myself on the other hand had no interest to be sleep deprived for two nights in a row so I went with the much later alarm of 3AM. When I wake up my thoughts are purely on comfort banking so my priorities are a hot shower and shave. Breakfast is a rushed affair and needs to be eaten in the car. We get to the start line with about 5 minutes to spare so we join the back of the starting group. The MC mentions the theme this year is gratitude and asks which participants are doing their first 100 miler. Everyone in front of us appears to put their hand up. Goodness me I thought. I’m content to let the first time enthusiasts dominate the front of the start line and am grateful to remain at the back. I know the real start line is not until a 100km or when it gets dark (whichever comes first). We set off to load applause and move past the geysers at Te Puia before heading deep into the Redwood Forest. The focus was on ‘staying fresh’ until the 100km mark.
I run with Dr Stanley for at least 20km until the sun rises after which he powers ahead along the back of the Green Lake. I’m content running at my comfortable pace or ‘running like an old wise woman’ as a participant on course shares with me as her approach to 100 milers. As I pass the Buried Village and enter the Tarawera Trail, the mind games begin. I always find this patch around 30km the most difficult in any long distance event. It’s usually around this point that the fatigue and discomfort start to settle in. By then any runner’s high has been suppressed and the realisation sinks in that you’re not nearly there yet and have 130km to go. I’m running by myself and I try to keep my emotions in check and my mind focussed. To run a 100 miler, you need to be able to think on your feet and be a good problem solver. ‘Bad things’ will invariably happen and you need to come up with a solution or risk a DNF (did not finish). My first ‘bad thing’ happened leading into the 54km aid station at Rerewhakaaitu when I started to develop lower abdominal discomfort. I was pacing well and I thought I had respected the gastrointestinal system through appropriate nutrition and toileting so it caught me by surprise. I decided to push on to the next aid station and soon realised that the discomfort seemed to be related to the pressure of my Camelbak waist bag against my bladder. I’ve had relatively minor/manageable urinary issues with my waist bag previously during longer runs (> 60km) but these have typically settled. Reducing the weight of the Camelbak through drinking seemed to help but it didn’t solve the problem. I knew I couldn’t continue like this so after reallocating my equipment, I left my trusty waist bag at the Okahu aid station at the 62km mark. Running without the waist bag was much better and I felt like I was back in the game. However, not long after that, my clinical suspicion that my bladder was the source of the problem was confirmed when the sport-related haematuria happened i.e. I started urinating gross blood (black currant colour). Having worked as a Sport and Exercise doctor, I was aware of this phenomenon but had never experienced it myself. I knew that it was ‘relatively common’ in high intensity / long duration sports (70% of runners in a 54 mile race had microscopic haematuria [Dancaster, 1971]). Explanations for sport-related haematuria include foot strike haemolysis (trauma to red blood cells circulating through the sole of the foot), bladder and/or kidney trauma (abrasions of the posterior bladder wall), reduced oxygen to the kidneys, dehydration, and non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g. ibuprofen). Although I knew that this condition was not typically associated with any significant structural damage or anything untoward, it was still very unnerving! I soon learnt first hand what wasn’t emphasised in any literature. That being, blood in the urine is an irritant. Its one thing to know that you’re not creating any damage. But it’s another thing to continue to run when you have the constant urge to pee every 10-20 minutes. As a result, I found it difficult to maintain any running rhythm as the faster I ran, the more the discomfort and the urge to urinate would increase. The next few hours running in the Tarawera Forest was demoralising. I had hoped to maintain a good pace along the non-technical forest roads but now I had reverted to survival mode. I slowed significantly and became cannon fodder to all the runners behind me. I increased my hydration hoping to ‘flush out’ the problem but the blood in the urine persisted. I also took some paracetamol for my presumed bladder trauma. The paracetamol seemed to help as my urinary frequency stabilised (could hold on for roughly an hour a time). During moments of lucency, I remembered from my teaching that sport-related haematuria settled with rest and within 48-72 hours. The reality sunk in. I knew that this would be my new normal for the next 100km. From then onwards, I refused to look at my urine anymore. Despite reassuring myself that it was nothing untoward, the black currant stream was damaging my psyche. I choose to look outward and enjoyed the course views instead.
The night was approaching and I was already dismantling and nowhere near my desired ‘freshness’. I stopped for my dinner at the Outlet aid station (103km) but even stuffed that one up. I put too much water in my mashed potatoes so they just tasted like water. The sun set slowly over Lake Tarawera as I was leaving Humphries Bay and the darkness returned again. The combination of the night and the technical Eastern Okataina track meant that running slowed to a purposeful walk. The reduced intensity helped me to regather my thoughts and refocus. Urinary system aside, every other system was intact and my legs were still operational. My mind was also coming back as was evident by the return of my sense of humour. Whilst on the Lake Okataina boat crossing, I joked if the driver could take me to the finish by the Lakefront at Lake Rotorua. When I arrived at the Okataina aid station (120km), I bumped into Wild Thing Simon Clendon whom I was extremely grateful for. Noticing that I was crewless, he offered to crew for me. Being an experienced runner himself, he knew all the attributes of a good crew – being helpful and positive. He filled up all my drink bottles and talked me into eating a cheese toastie. At the time, it felt like the best cheese toastie I’ve ever had in my life and it really hit the spot. I confided in my bladder dilemma and how I knew it would settle with rest. He responded, “Well you’ll get plenty of rest in 6 hours time”. I also shared my apprehension about not looking forward to hitting another wall. I knew there would be at least one more wall in the last 45km (including a possible physiological 3AM wall i.e. we were not physiologically designed to be running at 3AM). To which he responded, “After hitting rock bottom, you can only go up”. Thanks Simon! I left Okataina aid station in much higher spirits than when I entered.
The reason the DNF rate is so high in 100 milers is because of the effect of cumulative stress. Every stressor begins to accumulate. You can handle one thing going wrong. But invariably other things will start to play up due to the fatigue and prolonged time on feet. Although I chose not to run with a watch for this miler, I may need to reconsider wearing a watch as I lost all concept of time during the night. One can roughly get a gauge for time during the day due to the sun and temperature changes. But at night, the darkness provides no cues. Despite everything I had gone through, I had somehow managed to maintain a respectable pace but I hadn’t really appreciated this. Thinking that the sunrise would occur in an hour or so, I took another caffeine tablet hoping to combine my caffeine surge with the sunrise for maximum effect (in retrospect I had caffeine dosed too close together). I followed this up with a mouthful of sweets to keep me awake. However, one hour later, the sunrise didn’t occur and instead I was hit by sudden nausea. By now, I had too much caffeine and concentrated sugar on board and my gastrointestinal system was protesting. I had now acquired another problem which was painfully self-inflicted. I tried to push the pace around the Blue Lake but the nausea and urge to vomit increased with running. I knew if I were to vomit now, this could be the end of me and finishing could be a bridge too far. Knowing that most exercise related gastrointestinal problems tend to settle with adequate hydration and rest (due to dehydration and reduced blood flow to the gut whilst exercising), I yielded and slowed down. I slowly moved towards the music playing at the back half of the Blue Lake until I reached a sole volunteer with her sound system pumping loudly. I found it difficult to string a sentence together but I managed to ask her if she had anything that wasn’t sweet to eat. She offered me her own salmon and cheese sandwich. Aware that my stomach wouldn’t be able to handle the salmon and cheese, I just ask for the bread instead. She thoughtfully offers me the side of bread away from the salmon and I thank her and carry on. This lady will never know it but she was my get out of jail card. I slowly eat the plain bread and this seems to neutralise some of the sweetness in my gut. I manage to build up to a jog again and arrive at the Blue Lake aid station (149km) although still in damage control. I was still in a perilous situation so I was in no hurry to leave. I ask for anything which tastes plain and for any unsweetened drink. The chicken soup doesn’t really work for me so I try some milo minus the sugar which seems to help. I try stomach a small slice of pizza but this also doesn’t work so I switch to the salted peanuts which are surprisingly pleasant. I’m slightly startled when my younger cousin Shane and his partner Madi show up unbeknown to me just before 4AM. Shane had expressed an interest to run with me from the final aid station at the Redwoods, so I was surprised to see him at the Blue Lake before sparrow’s fart. I ask if he is keen to lace up early in case I happen to collapse in a heap somewhere unnoticed and he kindly agrees. Unable to tolerate anything sweet for the last part of the race means I lose any finishing kick. It is a slow procession to the Redwood Forest just as the sun begins to rise. Shane has the qualities of a good pacer – not too fast and just being present. Some pacers can be too zealous or push too hard. But at 150km, there is no benefit in flogging a dead horse. At this stage all you really want is someone to keep you company and distract you from your troubles. When I reach the Redwoods aid station, the mood is jovial and ‘Eye of the Tiger’ is pumping in the background. I’m told its another 6.9km to the finish line so I grab a handful of salted peanuts and carry on. I follow Shane along the steaming and hot trails around Sulphur Point until we finally cross the finish line at the Lakefront just over 27 hours later. Relief rather than elation is the overriding emotion. I feel grateful to finish knowing that I had dodged multiple DNF bullets.
One week later, I’m still a bit traumatised by what happened at the Tarawera 100 Miler. It was my worst race ever in that lots of things went wrong. But somehow, I still found a way to finish. This run simply reinforced to me how ultra-distance finishers need to think on their feet and be good problem solvers. I’m aware of research that shows that nausea is the most common symptom reported by those who do not finish an ultramarathon. But then, a clever person decided to research the symptoms of those who finished ultramarathons and found that both finishers and those who did not finish reported nausea in equal amounts. What does this tell you? You will encounter problems in long distance running. Good training will help mitigate most problems but you will still encounter them. Don’t be surprised by this. Accept the problem, seek solutions, manage it / try stabilise it, and most importantly, maintain a positive mindset. Running is medicine. Join me at my next blog, another big one, NZ Ironman at the start of March.