Tarawera 100 Miler (165.2km):
100 Mile # 5
Date:February 11, 2023
Money talks. But it don’t sing and dance and it don’t walk. It’s 3am in the morning and we’re racing around Lake Rotoiti in Dr Andrew Stanley’s Tesla. The Tarawera 100 miler is scheduled to start at 4am and we need to be at the Lake Rotoiti Rugby Club at 3.15am to catch the pre-race shuttle to the start line. I left my drink flasks at home so we had to turn around and get them and now Andrew is trying to make up for lost time. I keep my eyes closed to avoid motion sickness while Dr Stanley zips around the corners with Neil Diamond raging in the background. And long as I can have you here with me. I’d much rather be, forever in blue jeans. Sitting on the edge of his seat in the back is local doctor, Dr George Watkinson who only managed to sleep 2 hours last night due to pre-race nerves. “Will we make it?” George asks with a quiver in his voice. “We’ll be fine George” I respond calmly. He asks Andrew for further reassurance but this falls on deaf ears as by now, Dr Stanley is in full tune whilst continuing to drive like a man possessed. “Honey’s sweet. But it ain’t nothin’ next to baby’s treat. And if you’d pardon me, I’d like to say, we’d do okay forever in blue jeans.” As we seamlessly contour a corner, I hear a quaint shrill from George in the back. Dr Stanley continues to belt out “Maybe tonight. Maybe tonight, by the fire all alone, you and I. Nothing around but the sound of my heart and your sighs… Money talks. But it can’t sing and dance and it can’t walk…” I grip the seat and close my eyes again. OMG, I’m surrounded by mad men. When we finally arrive at the rugby club, there are a handful of runners outside and loads of free parking. It’s 3.15am on the dot. “There you go George, nothing to worry about” I proclaim. But George didn’t stick around to answer. As if driven by Neil Diamond or some other form of extreme duress, George bolts straight to one of the two portaloos while Dr Stanley calmly reshuffles his play list. “I think George is a bit nervous” he remarks. The next 30 minutes feels a bit like ‘hurry up and wait’. As more runners show up than shuttles, it becomes apparent that we all won’t get to the 4am start line on time. Dr Stanley attempts to calm George by playing AC/DC (Highway to Hell) followed by ‘Eye of the Tiger’ with the latter seeming to work. When George and I finally get to the start line at Lake Okataina, it’s 3.57am. As we arrive, the loud speaker announces that the start will be 20 minutes delayed! Needing a quiet space to compose myself, I wish George the best of luck as he darts away to relieve himself again. The Tarawera miler was a revised course this year due to a new land slip so it was essentially 45km from the start to the finishing area followed by a 60km loop repeated twice (i.e. you would pass the finish area 3 times during the course of the run). It was slightly easier with 3500m elevation gain compared to the usual 5500m. Despite this, I knew it would still provide a stern mental examination. Repeating loops is never easy. There was the traditional pre-start Māori haka and then about 400 participants spilled over the start line at 4.20am. Now that the Tarawera Ultramarathon was part of the UTMB World Series, there were a lot more international participants competing this year. As we jogged up the steep Lake Okataina Road, I hear someone with an accent behind me say “In the Comrades, you walk all the hills. You learn that quick enough”. Wise words. I slow down to a purposeful walk and keep walking until we connect with the Western Okataina Walkway.
On the usual Tarawera 100 miler course, you’d normally encounter the large climb on the Western Okataina Walkway (arguably the hardest part of the course) in the middle of the night and after you’ve run 120km. By this point, your legs would be heavy and if you hadn’t saved anything in the tank, there was a high probability your race would end in this short 16.5km section between Lake Okataina and Millar Road. Although it was still dark this year, the main difference was that we had only run 1km before reaching this critical juncture so there was the risk of climbing too fast. Not to be fooled, I ascended slowly. I intended to start as slow as possible and then build. I settled in with a group of similar pace until we reached the top and encountered our first train of ‘careful descenders’. I was familiar with this trail and knew it was reasonably stable without too many trip hazards. Not overly keen to put my quads through unnecessary braking stress, I managed to pass a large train of people until I was by myself again and could comfortably descend and let gravity do all the work. When I reached the first aid station at Millar Road, I simply ran through it. The sun was beginning to rise so I just kept following the sun towards Lake Okareka and then around the Blue Lake. First sunrise down. One more to go. As I was leaving the Blue Lake, Simon Clendon (an acquaintance who ran the Tarawera Miler back in 2021) shouted out “You’re back again! Why?” With nothing inspirational coming to mind I simply responded “I dunno” as I kept running. When I arrived at the Village Green aid station (45km), I’d been on my feet for just over 6 hours and it was around 10.30am. Unable to run today due to an Achilles injury, Dr Stanley is Johnny on the spot as he hands over my iced drinks. He tells me that George is still running on nerves and is one hour ahead of me. How is that possible? Not keen to linger, I get moving and start my first 60km lap. My initial 10min per km calculations had me arriving back at the Village Green again just after 9pm. I knew last light was 8.30pm so if I could just hold this pace, then hopefully I’d get back before sunset.
When people think of a 100 miler, they instantly associate it with a massive physical challenge. Don’t get me wrong, IT IS a massive physical challenge! But for me, it is a greater mental challenge. A miler is as much a measure of your cerebral fitness as it is your physical fitness. I know I can physically do a 100 miles. But am I able to get enough buy in from fortress brain? Your mind dictates how close you push your boundaries. You’ve just got to convince your mind to keep going a little further than it makes sense to. The 60km loop was essentially ‘The Black Track’ in reverse (34km long) with extra milage via the Puarenga Trail, along Te Puia, and a loop near the Green Lake I’ve never done before. Having grown up in Rotorua and come back often during holiday breaks, I’d run The Black Track many times and knew it well. Running The Black Track was always a challenge and arguably it’s tougher than the Rotorua Marathon. Hence, I knew that running this 60km loop in the heat of the day was going to be no easy feat and had to be respected. I ran within myself most of the time. It helped knowing when to walk the prolonged climbs early and when to push a bit extra to maintain momentum over rolling hills. The loop near the Green Lake had lush green moss and vegetation with scenic views of the lake. However, it was also quite hilly and technical in areas and not really something I wanted to repeat again. When I passed the Blue Lake for the second time, I bumped into Simon Clendon again. Clearly not enlightened from our earlier correspondence he shouts out “Are you having fun yet?”. I pause for a bit and then respond “I’ll tell you at the next lap”. When I arrive back at the Village Green again (103km), the first lap had taken me about 9 hours. It was around 7.30pm and I’d been on my feet for 14 hours and 50 minutes. I knew coming into the Village Green for the second time would be the hardest psychological part of the race. Had we been doing the original course, after 100km, I would’ve been approaching the Lake Okataina aid station. Lake Okataina was in the middle of nowhere so it made sense to push on to get closer to the finish. Meanwhile, back at the Village Green, the first male for the miler had just crossed the finish line before me (14hr 41 mins) and it made no sense to leave the finish area and repeat that 60km loop again. As if intuitively aware of this, Dr Stanley is waiting at the aid station area accompanied by my wife Courtney and cousin Paul (who’ve both just completed the 50km event). They amazingly have prepared ice-cold drinks for me and shower me with encouragement. “George just left not long before you. If you leave now, you’ll gain 10 minutes on him straight away” Dr Stanley coaxes me. As much as I was enjoying sitting down and resting, I knew deep down it was in my best interests to get the hell out here. I ditch my hat and sun glasses and put my head lamp and spare battery into my pack for the night ahead. Before I know it, I’m being willed on to leave and I comply unthinkingly. After seeing quite a few competitors ahead of me walking the start of the second lap, I was determined to jog all the way to the Hemo Gorge aid station 9km away. This was mostly flat and runnable. But running when you’ve already done a 100km can be challenging. The ice drinks were great but I was still quite hot and incredibly thirsty. I hadn’t sculled enough water down at the Village Green and my hypothalamus was letting me know all about it. My mouth was dry and I was craving more ice water. After jogging the whole way, I was about 200 metres out from the aid station when I decided to walk in so I could plan what I needed at the aid station. It’s at this stage I stumble slightly. Oh God. Here we go. After holding it together for 110km, I start to wobble and begin to feel light headed. I see Courtney and Paul waiting for me at the aid station and I tell them that I’m going to need a bit more time here for ‘damage control’. After the race, Courtney said she knew that I had hit the wall at that point. At the time, I didn’t think I had hit a wall. But I knew I was in a spot of bother. At some stage during a miler, you’ll reach the point where you’ll want to give up. But you aren’t going to. Tell that voice in your head to shut up and keep going. As I plonk my sorry arse into the seat, Courtney and Paul ask if I’d like some KFC. OMG! “Yes please!” It was around dinner time and I was craving real food after eating chocolate and cookies all day. I devour a whole snack box of popcorn chicken and chips in addition to a regular tub of potato and gravy. I wash this all down with about 1.5L of ice-cold water. Psychologically it was a massive lift but I knew physiologically, I’d pay for this in the short term. Physiology would shunt blood away from my working muscles and direct it towards my gut to digest this rather large food and fluid bolus. I would have to walk for a bit following this. I put on my head lamp and thanked Courtney and Paul profusely. As I left the aid station, the combination of night fall, the ice-cold water, and walking next to the Puarenga Stream meant that I was now cold and shivering. To think that mere minutes ago I was parched and hot. Ok this is not going to work. I started jogging again. In fact, it was barely a jog but it was faster than a walk. I took my first caffeine tablet and now I just needed to buy time. I needed to hold a pace until all the benefits of the Colonel and caffeine kicked in. And eventually it did! For the remainder of the race, I just focussed on relentless forward momentum. Sometimes it’s more about holding a pace rather than pushing the pace. Sometimes your run is as slow as your walk, and sometimes your walk is as fast as your run. What matters most is relentless forward momentum. Walk run, walk run, as many times as you need to. When I get to the Green Lake aid station (130km), there’s quite a few stone-faced people hunched together over their hot soup or brew making intermittent unintelligible noises. It’s no coincidence that runners have stopped here prior to repeating that Green Lake loop again in the dark. It was nice to do once. But as an extra loop, on top of your second loop, in the middle of the night, was mentally taxing. As tempting as it was to sit down and share war stories, you’ve just got to get on with it and exercise one’s mind. Finishing is a mental state. Resisting the urge to stop, I push on. I negotiate the viewless loop in pitch darkness and head towards the Blue Lake again. I don’t spend too long at the Blue Lake aid station and grab a couple of Nutella sandwiches on the way out. It’s a slow steady push towards the Redwoods but the most important thing is that I’m still going forwards. After descending those gigantic horrible purple track stairs for the third time, I hear someone ringing a bell deep in the Redwoods. They’re keen. I think to myself What clown would be up at 4am ringing a bell? A voice shouts out “Good work Johnny”. It’s my cousin Paul! “Goodness me! You should be in bed!” I exclaim. Paul is very encouraging. With no pacer this year, I had to rely a lot on my own inner drive but it’s amazing what difference a few energetic words can make. It was like he transferred his energy directly into me. Feeling invigorated, I finish the last 6km through the Redwoods and Sulphur Point at a rather brisk 6.24 min kilometres. I finish my second 60km loop in 11 hours and 40 minutes for a total finishing time of 24 hours and 28 minutes. It was just before 5am and I’d managed to beat the second sunrise. As I cross the finish line, I’m congratulated and get an intense vigorous hug from Dennis Hunt (a man I know but not intimately). Although not much of a hugger, I’m tired and overwhelmed by his manliness so I succumb into his arms as my wife Courtney looks on alarmingly. Somehow, I’d managed to run George down as well and he finished a couple of minutes after me. It’s amazing how we finished around the same time yet only saw each other for less than 10 seconds during the whole race! Remember, your mind dictates how close you push your boundaries. You’ve just got to convince your mind to keep going a little further than it makes sense to. Finishing is a mental state. Success is a mental state. Running is medicine.