Vibram Tarawera Ultramarathon 2014 race report

SAMSUNGTarawera! The training was done and the time had come. The idea of finally being on the startline was tantalisingly close, but my almost-not-quite-maybe cooperating body kept me guessing until the last minute. I was hanging out for a reassuring pain-free jog in the final 10 days, but the achilles was being stubborn. By Tuesday I gave up trying and just decided not to run anymore before the race – if it felt like coming right on the day, so be it. Bring on some carb loading. I like carb loading.

On Thursday I went for a final loosen-up massage with Dale McClunie. Alba and I threw many random things in the car and drove over to Vegas.

SAMSUNGThe no-running plan meant I missed out on the fun run, but still enjoyed watching everybody. The opportunity to explore Te Puia for free was a great bonus from an Alba perspective. We spent a lot of time there over the evening and following morning.

I did look wistfully at the elite photo shoot as they skipped gazelle-like across the volcanic landscape – it looked pretty fun. However, some elite three-year-old-chasing was the priority for the day.

Friday morning we were back in Te Puia for the official welcome, which I thought was great. Alba was a bit unnerved, but got inspired to practice her pukana face.


We spent most of the morning wandering around enjoying geysers and kiwis – and getting photos with multiple Ruby Muir fans who thought I was she, despite assurances to the contrary. I’d like to think this complimentary confusion was because of our matching athletic physiques and inner cool, but was more likely down to wearing FiveFingers and being female. “I reckon it’s the rough-and-ready hairstyles,’ offered Kristian.

The buzz was on when we got to the Holiday Inn for rego and weighing and seminars. Carl turned up after that and took over-it Alba for a sleep so I could watch the elite Q+A. Part of keeping myself amused during aquajogging sessions is to listen to podcasts – Talk Ultra, irunfar, UltraRunnerPodcast – so the opportunity to hear from some of the key players outside of the dive pool and tomorrow run with them on real dirt was something I was looking forward to.

I remember reading a few weeks back that the chance of the fire course was less than 5%, and thinking of this.
Have to admit, when reading a few weeks back that the chance of the fire course was less than 5% I thought immediately of this.

Mid-afternoon there was rumblings about changes afoot due to Cyclone Lusi, and after a nervous wait (please don’t cancel it), we found out the course was shortened to 70k. On a personal level I was pragmatic about this, assuming safety was paramount and everything would have been weighed up carefully. I felt for Paul though, and all the runners who were set on completing the full course after missing out last year.


Friday night was sleepless, but that’s normal. Lying awake at 3am, I decided to have an early breakfast, because I remembered some of the elites do that. They also said (about 10 times) ‘don’t try new things on race day’, but who can remember every detail? Anyway, breakfast was probably a bad call as it sat heavily in my stomach until an unscheduled stop about seven hours later. Good to know. Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’ came on the ipod and got me in the perfect mood.

Image by Photos4Sale

The birds they sang, at the break of day 
Start again 
I heard them say 
Don’t dwell on what has passed away 
or what is yet to be.

By which I’m pretty sure Lenny meant ‘quit angsting over injuries, course changes or weather, and go have fun on the trails.’ Attempts to get ready without waking the family were a complete failure, so I quickly exited and caught a ride to the start thanks to Vibram’s star-studded relay team.

Image by Photos4Sale

It was fantastic to be lining up at the start rather than watching. I’d hoped to see training buddies Oscar and Dan and Ceana somewhere in the mix, but there were a lot of people around. I chatted with LTH and met Sadie Cranston. Last year I was excited for everyone at the start, but couldn’t help some tears in the dark as they ran past. This year I was elated to be there running, and yet there were still tears – there’s something powerful about start and finish lines. The tears abated, but the joy remained, even with a solid bit of hill to kick off.

Going up the hill I saw Shannon-Leigh Litt having a frustrating time with cramping. I was disappointed on her behalf as her preparation seemed exemplary and she could have been on the podium if things had aligned on the day. Here’s to an awesome Northburn and Hillary for her.

Image by Photos4Sale

The first 12k was a chance to test the legs and relax into running. Extra time in the redwoods was no hardship. Coming through the start again added some energy, as it was packed with people screaming. Brendan Keenan and I nearly got taken out by a moving aid table, comic film styles. Going up again I saw some Hawks friends from the relay which was fun.

I always like the blue lake track, especially the bush parts and beautiful views. Somewhere around here I saw Lucy Bartholomew, who was very friendly and encouraging as I passed despite not feeling the best. More cheering awaited us at the aid station. I love aid station energy, but get too revved up to make the most of them, and never once got round to eating. Bit of a waste really. ‘Are you feeling good?’ asked a pajama-d Kim Allan. ‘Yes,’ I said, slowly, and took off.

vinegarWith legs behaving and a playground-trail to run on, I was having a pretty good time. I’m here! I’m running! ‘I could see your smile from the other side of the lake,’ observed Scary Dr Glenn Larsen as I headed into Tennent’s Track. Then I got stung by a wasp – how dare it interrupt the glee? It felt a bit painful through to Okareka but I couldn’t do much and it wasn’t going to be fatal.

It sounds a bit blasphemous, but the weather was perfect for running, cool and pleasant, and I like rain. Nutrition seemed to be going fine. I was knocking back gels as the time rolled around. Trotting up the hill we started to see some of the 55k runners. I still had no idea where I was sitting in the women’s race but wasn’t thinking about it too much. Along the mid-hill plateau and upwards I ran with a guy in a blue shirt for a long time who helped keep a good consistent pace but never got round to asking a name. (Belated cheers!) I do know he hadn’t run further than a marathon before, so hope everything panned out ok. I wanted to hit the top of the hill before the first long course guys appeared, and we did.

VTUM_005640Then it was all downhill and wheeeee, flying! As I caught up to Shona, relaying Ruby caught both of us, so there were quick greetings and well wishes all round. I exchanged a high five with Kerry as he cleared the way for Sage, and he said ‘Meghan (Arbogast) is just back there.’ For some reason I thought he meant she was coming up the hill behind them, so when I did pass Meghan I didn’t really register, and thought maybe she was a relay runner. The trail down to Okareka was a blast – possibly my high point of the day.

The closer I got to Okataina turnaround without seeing a female runner coming back, the closer I was to the top ten, so when I arrived at the aid station having still not seen anyone it was getting pretty exciting. Ironically, the splendid Western Okataina walkway was the one part of the course I’d trained on, so it was good to run at least a tiny bit of it. I think it was my fastest pace for the whole race, although it was a bit congested. After a bit I saw Jo leading and was intrigued, not knowing who she was. A little later I saw Claire and Beth, and Meghan and Shona, and a bunch of relay runners in between. So I didn’t know my placing for sure (counting is tricky after a few k) but was buoyed to know I was in the mix, and definitely top ten. The awesome Gayle and Anna had filled a bottle of Perpetuem for me here, and said Beth was 3 minutes ahead. I should have also refilled on water, but was a bit too amped to think straight.

Yep, it's me running...again. Photos4Sale.
Yep, it’s me running…again. Photos4Sale.

I’d been looking forward to having my friend Ange as a pacer, but assumed with the course change it wouldn’t be necessary. I still could have, in retrospect, but we weren’t sure how bad the weather would get for travelling so called it off. Going back up the hill wasn’t too bad anyway, and certainly social. I ran where I could, and just walked hard a lot. I loved being able to say hi all the other runners, and can see how an out-and-back style course has its benefits.

Over the top I was starting to get thirsty but needed sugar too. Note: gumming through a packet of Clif bloks without water isn’t the best idea. Coming down to the plateau, I suddenly glimpsed Beth just ahead. She said ‘Awesome, well done,’ and waved me past – at which exact point my quads said ‘WHY YOU RUN STUPID LONG WAY?’ and cramped. ‘I don’t think I can!’ was my slightly desperate response (to Beth, not the quads), but things came right, sort of.

The next patch was probably the trickiest as I jog-walked the moderate uphill stretch, which seemed to have got longer in the last couple of hours. There are even some photos of me not smiling. Seeing runners still heading out towards Okataina – knowing they had 4, 5, 6 hours left in the rain, and often still smiling – was good for perspective though.That’s gutsy, right there. Coming down to Millar Rd I found a bit more impetus. Finally, I got to the aid station and sculled some water. Seeing Kim again was a nice bonus. 3k to go? Let’s get this thing done.

VTUM_000055Coming down the road was my first experience of being filmed running for an extended time – novel but slightly awkward. Over the last kilometre I took the time to appreciate all the preparation for the race, waking up in the dark to run before work, and what a lovely privilege it is to be able to do things like this in a place like this. Then came the finish! I’d never finished a race to a semi-circle of cameras before. Interviews, hugs, dry clothes and a paddle in the lake.

All up it was a great day and ahead of my own expectations. According to IRunFar, I’m officially sneaky. I finished third in 7.16, 5 minutes behind the UK’s Claire Walton and 12 minutes behind Kapiti’s Jo Johansen, who pulled off a gloriously accomplished unexpected win.

Lots of people asked afterwards how I would have gone on the full course. It’s hard to say, as I adjusted effort accordingly, but I don’t think much would have changed. Jo had things under control, and a great base, by the sounds of it.

Footwise, the pretty blue Spyridon MRs plus injinji  socks went like a dream. No blisters, no nothing, and no problems on the wet bits. The timing chip, on the other hand, provided some blood and bruising to make up for the fact that I didn’t even fall over. Those things are lethal. I’ll put the gory shot at the bottom for brave people.

Podium photo by Bryan Powell,
Podium photo by Bryan Powell,

Top of the thanks board would be Carl and Alba, for sharing me with the trails. Hadley ‘Crater NZ’ Craig has truly been a fantastic coach and support. Alba rushes for my phone whenever it rings, saying ‘I want to talk to Hadley!’

Can’t have an Oscars speech without Oscar, who has shared the long runs and driven me many, many cumulative kilometres so we could find hills. Ceana and Dan are now ULTRARUNNERS, and great training buddies too. Thanks Jenni for the jacket and many many awesomes. Dylan and the Vibram crew are the nicest group of people and I feel lucky to be part of the team. Thanks to Paul for working so hard on this excellent race, and to the runners who make it what it is. I really enjoyed being able to run with such a solid field, and meet lots of new awesome people. (‘I think you have a little running crush on Meghan Arbogast,’ observed Ceana. Hey, who doesn’t?).

What’s next? I’m not sure yet. Watch this space, and feel free to offer suggestions.

*Bonus (slightly) gory shot, below*

At 2am on Sunday I realised I could have just moved the timing chip to my wrist.
At 2am on Sunday I realised I could have just moved the timing chip to my wrist.

13 thoughts on “Vibram Tarawera Ultramarathon 2014 race report

  1. Though not a runner myself, Dawn’s race reports give me a peek into the unique spirit and drive of the ultra athlete. I have great admiration for Dawn, and by extension, people who commit themselves so completely to something they love.

  2. Hi Dawn, Well done on Tarawera, and then backing that up with a superb win at the road 100km at the NZ champs in CHCH. Just thinking of the rubbing from the timing chip, I craftily made a foam pad that I could slide onto the strap to sit underneath the timing chip so that it wouldn’t rub. Very simple and worked well for me until about 10km from the end of Tarawera when the pad popped out from under the chip. Still didn’t rub, so the plan worked. Simple and low-tech!

    See you at another race somewhere…

    Cheers, Russell Lake, Tauranga Ramblers

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