Friday, 19 February 2016

Tarawera Ultramarathon 2016, NEW ZEALAND : 63km


The Start Line of Tarawera Ultramarathon 2016

After finishing the Spartathlon end of last September, I decided to permanently remove some of my toenails which have been giving me problems most of the time during races. It was a difficult period for me after the painful surgery. I was limping a lot when I was supposed to work and treat patients at work.

At the beginning of December, I started training again but an unusual amount of rainfall in the area where we are living had flooded most of the trails and places where I used to run, and this has forced me to train on the treadmill instead!

Of course, when I registered to run the Tarawera 100, I had known that the chances for me to get a decent training were slim. The period leading up to the race happened to be in the middle of the British winter, and I knew that a proper training for an ultramarathon was not going to be an easy mission to be accomplished.

Nevertheless, the idea of escaping the winter’s misery by visiting a country of warmth in the Southern Hemisphere was so appealing and attractive that we decided to create another of our crazy adventure in the Kiwiland. And while we are there, I thought, why not run a 100km race as well? Kill two birds with one stone – that will be nice!!

Actually, New Zealand has appealed to me for a long time and a few years back, we have even attended exhibitions to help professionals like us to migrate and work there. The promises of a good standard of life and attractive professional offers were really tempting. However, due to its distance from Europe (taking my aging parents’ interests into consideration), we decided to stay on in the UK instead.

With this recent journey to the country, I finally fulfilled my dream to explore and get to know most of the vast areas of wilderness of the South Island by driving and living in a nice campervan for almost 2 weeks.

Us and our luxurious campervan

Unfortunately, our first 4 days in the South-West of the country were a total misery!! Coming from England, we are very familiar with RAIN but the Kiwi rain is a different story altogether. The rain was torrential and most bizzarely, CONTINUOUS. We have both never experienced rainfall that can go on for 24 hours with only a 20-minutes' gap in between!!

This treacherous weather has prevented me from exploring most of the mountains and paths that I was planning to run through. It was so frustrating to be at such beautiful places and trapped in a campervan. We could not fully appreciate the beauty of the views around us as most iconic sights were covered in thick clouds. Many trails and treks were also closed to visitors due to the rain and our attempts to visit some of the glaciers were unsuccessful.

In all that misery and frustration, I was almost determined to get a flight to the nearby Fiji Islands!! Miraculously, on the 5th day of our campervan adventure, the weather condition suddenly changed for the better and we (finally!!) had the opportunity to spend 10 gorgeous sunny days in some of the most amazing parts of the country.

I managed to run and climb most of the scenic places (the highlight being the famous Routeburn Track), and spend some unforgettable moments of rest and relaxation with my wife, most of time camped in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by gigantic mountains and turquoise lakes. All these contributed to make me feel better and lift my spirits, and I found myself looking forward to the race.

Unfortunately, when we flew into the North Island, we were informed that the weather forecast for race day is going to be not just wet, but WET, WET, WET!!! Due to this and after having experienced what Kiwi rainfall is really like, I decided without any hesitation  to change my race distance to 63K instead of the 100K which I had initially registered for. I have always hated rain, and more so when I have to run an ultra!!

The Race Director giving us the weather forecast
for Race Day at the briefing

I spent most of my time a day before race listening to interesting talks by the elite runners, doctors specialised in endurance sports and watching inspiring running movies. The Expo area was rather small and crowded, with very few stalls, apart from some amazing offers for Hoka Shoes at 50% less retail price!!

The elite runners during the Q & A session

Dr Hoffman from the USA on the misconception
of Sodium's benefits 

The briefing given by the organisers added nothing more to what I had already known from their website. Compared with other international races of similar standards and fees, I was quite disappointed with what the organisers had given the runners in our race bags. I received only my race bib number, one gel, one t-shirt, and many useless tourism leaflets.

Not only did the organisers try to save/make money, they also had this ‘brilliant’ idea to start all three races (63 -85-100K) at the same time!! By doing so, the runners will never know who they are competing with in their respective races.

The torrential rain right from the night before the race continued for the WHOLE of race day, save for about 2 hours (right after I have finished the race, naturally!). I had to drag myself to the Start Line and my spirits was only lifted by the fact that we will be meeting up with our friends from Wichita, Kansas, Mike and Jennifer Strong (father-and-daughter whom we first met at the Namib Desert Challenge back in 2013), who were also running the 63K.

The rain has caused the paths to be extremely slippery, and I was running without any joy or motivation. I tried to keep a fast pace from the early kilometres and to maintain it for as long as possible. Many times, I had to jump over dead tree’s branches which were blocking the paths ( I thought the organisers said they have cleaned and cleared the paths??) and to maintain my balance while stepping on wet roots which jutted out from the ground.

The runners soaked at the Start Line

The first section of the race took place through the Rotorua forest. We ran through an amazing forest with giant Sequoias and a diverse range of exotic plant and tree species. Most of the time, we ran through a very dense forest without any views, apart from the times when we came across the few lakes in the area. Most of the tracks were ran in low altitude (600m), with a continuous alternation of short up and down hills with perfect markings of the track, which makes it impossible to go off course.

It is interesting to know that we were running through a PRIVATE PROPERTY for most of the second section of the race. The organisers and all crew entering into this section had to get a prior paper permit in order to get access!! The Aid Stations were all very well organised, with many different options of food and drinks and very friendly volunteers.

The vertical gain for the race was 2,000 metres, which was before the end of the 63K race. If I had run the 85k or 100K race, the rest of the remaining route will be almost flat, without any difficult technical challenges.

Since all the runners had started at the same time, I had no knowledge at all of whom I was competing with in my race. I was just running on my own pace, trying to maintain a pace of 10km/h throughout the race. I have to say that this is one of the least interesting races I have ever run, and when I crossed the finish line in 6h and 34min (7th overall and 3rd in my age group),  I was more than happy to have completed it and say good bye to NZ!

The volunteers at the finish line was unable to tell me about my position when I asked them, despite the fact that only 5 people had finished before me. I only found out my actual position the following day at the Awards Ceremony, when the organisers presented the top 5 winners of each race on the stage and I recognised the face of the 5th guy who had finished in front of me. However, when I went back to check on the Results on their website later, I found that the organiser had added a new guy on the list of the top 5 winners and with that, the knowledge that I have been pushed one position down to number 7!!

During the Ceremony, I was also surprised to witness another unusual practice of the race, claimed to be of an international standard and part of the famous Ultra-Trail World Tour races. Although they had presented all the top 5 winners of each race on stage, they had only awarded the first male and female winners of the 100K a huge wood carving and nothing for the other 4. I would have thought a small token of gift or award would have been appropriate or nice, given that they have been called on stage. It would not have cost very much, would it?

In my opinion, there is nothing outstanding at all about this race and I would not be disappointed to have missed it. Comparing it with the atmosphere of other international races, especially the American ones, where international runners are welcomed with extra friendliness and acknowledgement, the Tarawera organisers certainly have a lot to learn. This was a race where they acknowledge only the locals, Australians and elite runners from overseas. All the others were simply ignored or side-lined.

Thank God this gorgeous country offers so many beautiful and wild places for me to run free, always in isolated areas, in the middle of nowhere. At least I can leave NZ with the memory of some of my best running experience from my 20 days' stay! The Tarawera race, no doubt, will fade very quickly from my memory as another race without anything special worth mentioning.

I am already looking forward to my next stop in my Running Races Around the World “project” - the remote Kingdom of Bhutan, which nests contently and quietly in the Himalayas, between China and India. This is a place of ancient monasteries and staggering natural beauty and I will be running a 6-day race (200K) organised by at the end of May. Participants will get to run through villages, crossing 3 passes of 3,500m, sleeping in Buddhist Monasteries and interacting with the monks. These are just some of the highlights. I am gearing up for another experience, combining two of my great passions; Running and Travelling.

My next adventure : running The Last Secret in the
Kingdom of Bhutan 

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