Friday, March 30, 2012

Tarawera Ultramarathon

Careening into Rotorua, NZ, on edge and twitchy from driving on the wrong side of the road and having to shift with my left hand, potent whiffs of sulfur pouring in the open window of my rental suddenly transport me to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.  I first experienced Yellowstone's paint pots and geysers with my family on one of our many summertime car camping trips back in the early 1990s.  It's an odd, very distinctive smell, and one that the residents of Rotorua live with every day.  New Zealand in general is extremely volcanic and geothermal, situated as it is on the Pacific Rim, and Rotorua is especially so, with innumerable geysers and naturally-occurring hot pools.  It is also home to the Tarawera Ultramarathon.

Tarawera Ultramarathon founder and Race Director Paul Charteris picks me up from the rental car agency and we drive to his house on the edge of town where final, frantic preparations are underway for the race 36hrs hence.  The passion Paul has for this event and trail running in general is obvious in his attention to detail and his contagious enthusiasm.  Two-time race champion Kerry Suter greets me in the driveway.  He's only running a relay leg this year but is picking up slack by extensively volunteering for Paul and assisting in the production of a short film about this year's event.  He would later whisk me away to picturesque Blue Lake on the 100K course for a short interview (and run something like an extra 40K on race day following the 100K leaders with a GoPro Camera).

Chatting with Kerry Suter at the Charteris (with gym bag) residence. Photo: Paul Petch.
Paul introduces me to Ruby Muir and Kristian Day, two up-and-coming NZ trail runners who exude a kind of quiescence and affability that I would come to find is pretty much standard for Kiwis in general.  From them, I learn that Paul's sunny and sparsely-furnished bachelor pad is the de facto runner's hostel in New Zealand.  It seems that at least half the runners I will meet this week have crashed for a night in Paul's spare bedroom, on the two giant neon-green beanbags in his living room, or camped outside on his backyard lawn.  As K-Day cracks the first of many brews and we chat over nutella sandwiches in Paul's kitchen, the vibe is overwhelmingly mellow.

After my interview at the lake, we head over to the Redwood Center for the pre-race Fun Run--a relaxed 7.5K jog on cushy trails that course through the redwoods and surrounding commercial forest.  Following the Fun Run, many of the runners stay to enjoy a screening of Unbreakable in maybe the coolest venue I've experienced yet for it--out under the stars beneath the redwoods with the audience seated in the forest duff. Perfect.

Striding out at the Fun Run. Photo: PP.
Some DVDs, some redwoods. Photo: PP.
The Fun Run is the kick-off to a weekend of activities that essentially establish this event as nothing less than a trail running festival.  Besides the 100K, 85K, 60K, and 85K relay on Saturday, there is an extensive pre-race expo at race registration on Friday afternoon and everything is wrapped up Sunday morning with a well-attended and cozy awards gathering ("prize-giving" in Kiwi-speak) at the uber-hip Abracadabra Cafe in downtown Rotorua.  Rotorua is known as "Rotovegas" by Kiwis, not because of its casinos or neon lights (thankfully), but because of its renown as an outdoor recreation haven--hardcore fun, Kiwi-style.  Paul's still-fledgling event is certainly already contributing to this reputation mightily.

After the film has ended, Paul has plans to introduce me to a little local flavor, so a handful of us pile into a pair of cars and head ~20min south of town to the "secret spot" for some starlight soaking in one of the local hot pools.  Mixed with candle light coming from the riverbank walls, a few brews, and great company, life doesn't get much better. Once we're all sufficiently pruny, the majority of us head back to Paul's where running-geek chatter continues well past midnight (Kerry is particularly indefatigable) before we finally all crash out.

The Friday afternoon expo is where the anticipation for the next day's race really begins to build, and I have the pleasure of meeting and chatting with dozens of the ultra trailers--mid-packers and frontrunners alike.  Early in the afternoon I'm sitting in the hotel lobby, idly ultrasounding my gimpy shin, when the Dunedin Salomon duo of Matt Bixley and Anna Frost arrive.  Bixley is known among locals as the "Mouth of the South" due to his encyclopedic (he's a statistician by trade) and vocal knowledge of all things mountain/ultra/trail running in New Zealand and globally.  His nerdy spectacles and small stature are offset by a deep, thick accent that, for some reason, reminds me of Christian Bale's (I know, he's Welsh, not Kiwi).  Bixley is a veteran of 24hr races (having represented NZ at the World Champs), set the 4 Summits record at Taranaki earlier in the year, and clearly, specializes in suffering. He's entered in the 100K.

Frosty is known to most North American runners as the winner of the last two TNF50 mile Championships in San Francisco, this last year putting many a top male competitor in her wake, too. However, those two big paydays are the only ultras on her resume (she's an accomplished veteran of short-course mountain and skyraces), so--keen to learn more about the sport--she's here as support for Matt and Mick Donges, a freshly minted Aussie Salomonite who many people are picking as the likely winner on Saturday.  I first met Anna at the Leadville 100 last year where she was pacing and supporting Ryan Sandes to his win there before tearing apart the Transrockies course the following week (with Rickey Gates).  Dubbed "Frosty Three Lungs" by some (referring to both her exceptional running engine, I imagine, and the fact that she talks non-stop) she's no nonsense--and, as one might deduce from all of this support work--selfless and tireless.  Based on nothing more than our initial meet last August, she's offered to be my tour guide for the mountains of the South Island the following week.

Getting the rundown from Frosty and Bixley. Photo: PP.
Paul has succeeded in attracting a sterling field for this year's 100K--the marquee event--and Bixley is of the informed opinion that it is likely the deepest, most competitive field ever assembled in an NZ ultra. That afternoon I have the chance to meet many of the contenders---Kiwis Marty Lukes (3x Kepler Champ, all under 5hr; 6:46 100K, yep, legit as they come) and Vajin Armstrong (2x defending Kepler Champ; as Bixley said, "For us, Kepler is like Western States for you guys--everyone wants to win Kepler."), and Aussies Dave Eadie (speediest man in the field with a 29:06 10K PR), Mike Le Roux (Mike is only entered in the 60K, using it as an early season training run for his attempt at the Grand Slam in the U.S. later this year, but is the Aussie record holder for 100mi on trail with a 15:38), and Mick.  The Trans-Tasman competition is going to be fierce.

After an extreme session of cat herding, Team Salomon finally gets their crap together and we depart for the starting line in the redwoods where--after a brew or two--Mick, Bixley, and Frosty bed down for the night, meters from the starting archway.  Trail runners are pretty much the same the world over, it seems.

Start-line campsite. Photo: PP.

I'm injured, and haven't been able to train consistently in months, so on race day I'm relegated to a leg on a local NB relay team.  My fellow relay members have graciously given me what is roundly seen as the best section of the whole 100K course--Leg Three from 37K at Okataina Lodge on the shores of Lake Tarawera to Tarawera Falls at 60K.  This also allows me to watch the competition unfold throughout the day, albeit not as intimately as I'd originally hoped to, unfortunately.

The first access point on the course is only 4K in where the trail emerges from the dark forest near a giant water tank and runners drop their headlamps (the race starts at 7am and is essentially light on the starting line, but the initial bit of forest is so thick that many runners carry headlamps, or "torches" in the local parlance).  Kerry is setting a torrid pace with his lead-off relay leg, but only a short time later 60Kers James Kuegler and Le Roux come tearing through.  Kuegler is pulling double duty on this first leg--also participating as part of a relay--and seems fine with sacrificing his 60K chances in order to stay competitive in the team race. Maybe a minute later, all of the usual suspects--Mick, Vajin, Hiroki Ishikawa, Eadie, K-Day, Bixley--in the 100K contest come trotting through looking comfortable.

Hiroki, Dan Scarberry, Vajin, a relay runner, and Mick in the early miles. K-Day, Eadie, and Bixley obscured. Photo: PP.
Martin Lukes is notably absent, however, and when he stiltedly ambles by a bit later, Frosty ponders, "Hmmm...what's Marty doing? Looks a bit heavy, don't you think?" As it would turn out, Marty would actually be in the midst of writing yet another amusing chapter in the considerable lore that surrounds his running career.  Moments after he passed the water tank, he pulled to the side of the trail with cramping quads. After letting the entire field stream by, he turned around and started walking back up the race course to drop out. There was one final straggler, though, who, upon seeing Marty, told him that if he could walk, he might as well turn around and walk towards the finish line.  Despite having lost nearly 30min on the leaders at this point, he did turn around, gradually things improved (though at the 60K mark he had to run circles around the aid station in order to keep the cramps at bay whilst resupplying), and he stormed back through the entire field of runners to secure a third place finish.  Inspiring stuff.

Frosty completing a hand-off with Mick early in the day. Photo: PP.
When I begin my leg a couple hours later at Okataina Lodge, I receive the team timing chip (Paul had chip timing for all of the events--organization for the whole weekend was superb) 5-10min back from the lead 100K runners.  I go into the run with zero expectations and have even been considering hiking significant portions of my 23 kilometers in order to baby my shin.  Thursday evening's jog under the redwoods had not been encouraging.

The lakeside trail is absolutely immaculate, though, and after a bit I find a reasonable rhythm, rolling up and down under the jungle-like foliage.  There are no significant climbs on this section of the course, but my altimeter would clock 3400' of vertical, pretty much gained in ~100' chunks.  It's been an exceptionally wet summer in New Zealand and early on the trail passes through 30 or 40 yards of knee-deep water. Obviously we're close to the lake, with majestic views of Mount Tarawera (another volcanic caldera, of course) visible on the opposite shore.  I'm starting to feel the groove of the trail and I catch up to Le Roux and Kuegler, still together and duking it out for the lead in the 60K (they would finish in a tie).  Shortly thereafter I catch Hiroki, who comments that his legs are still tired from the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon a couple weeks earlier. I don't blame him.

A bit later, about 35min into my run, I catch up the trio of Vajin, American Daniel Scarberry (who would win the 85K in a course record and is entered in this year's Western States), and Mick on a technical bit of track.  Vajin is in front and leads us through another submerged section of trail.  The pace is remarkably casual, but with no agenda of my own I'm happy to fall in behind them and enjoy bits of conversation with Mick.  His version of Aussie tends to punctuate each sentence with a slightly drawled-out uptick in pitch, as if every statement is a question. It gives his speech a lighthearted and whimsical tone that contributes to the overall high spirits that come from running with others on absolutely beautiful trail. He and Vajin have apparently decided to run easy until 60K where the course leaves the jungle trail and follows mostly forestry roads to the finish.  I'm a little surprised at this and know that if I were fit and healthy and competing I would be blitzing this technical section, hoping to put a cushion on Vajin, who--as per his victories on Kepler's carpet path--is known to have exceptional legspeed on smooth track (something I tend to lack).

Fifty-five minutes into my leg we come to ~km52 of the course and a remote aid station that is only accessed by boat.  Mick, Daniel, and Vajin all linger here in a Tour de France-style agreed upon truce to empty stones from their shoes.  Only out for a 2hr effort myself, I decide to keep pressing on alone.  The second half of my leg is a blast as the trail becomes quite technical for a few K's before coursing along the shores of the crystal clear, blue-green Tarawera River.  I see a few signs for Tarawera Falls and when the river flows over a series of 20-30' cascades I am suitably impressed and inspired.  Nice falls, indeed.

But then, I come around a corner and the real falls smack me in the face.  A 200' high spout shoots from seemingly right out of the middle of the basaltic canyon wall and crashes down to river level.  I immediately think of other comparable falls I've seen--Havasu in the Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley--and, of course, promptly catch a toe and hit the deck, dinging my knee.  I chuckle at being reprimanded for gawking off at the beauty, pick myself up, and enjoy the final couple kilometers into the finish at the 60K mark.

Five or ten minutes later, Mick is the first 100K runner through and, unexpectedly, with a clear gap (there was a mix-up at the shoe-clearing stop and Mick thought he was actually chasing Vajin, not the other way around), but Vajin is in hot pursuit only a few minutes back.  Mick would grow this gap to 10 minutes over the final 40K with Vajin keeping it tense all the way to the final few Ks.  Dave Eadie would smoke the last 40K of smooth track to move up substantially and come up only a few seconds short of Marty Lukes' improbable podium finish.

Vajin, Marty, and Mick at the finish. Photo: Matt Bixley.
The finish line scene in Kawerau is as good or better than any ultra I've run in the States.  Paul has a spread of food, pizzas, and endless free pilseners and ales from Croucher Brewery in Rotorua.  The Tarawera River is only 100 yards away and with convenient stairs leading into its waters is the perfect post-race soaking spot.  Mick is a hurting unit, though, and at one point, when Kerry offers a helping hand out of the river, Mick inadvertently pulls him fully-clothed into the drink.

After washing the salt off in the river, I'm chatting with Bixley back at the finish, who, unfortunately had to withdraw from the 100K at Okataina Lodge with a lingering piriformis injury.  He asks me whether this kind of thing--a merry scene of runners and spectators hanging out in the setting sun, trading war stories, drinking beer, hobbling about in contented soreness--is typical of North American ultras.  Of course, I reply, isn't that why we do these things? The community, the camaraderie?  It's not quite as common in New Zealand, Bixley says, but Paul's efforts at Tarawera are definitely making an impact, and with the event's attendance and competitiveness increasing exponentially each year, people are obviously taking notice.  As for me, my short section alone already has me excited to come back next year for the real deal.

Mick with the champion woodware. Photo: PP.
Hiroki, 5th place. Photo: PP.
Vajin, 2nd place. Photo: PP.

The previous night we'd secured housing at a vacation house rented by some friends of Frosty's for the race.  Another Aussie 100Ker--Matt Meckenstock, of crucial rental car ownership--myself, Anna, 100K debutant and 5th placer Andy Howse, and Bixley had stayed up until the wee hours; it seems runners can almost never stop talking about running.  Even once we'd all snuggled into sleeping bags for a slumber party in the basement, Anna couldn't contain herself, within minutes querying in the darkness about the status of everyone's consciousness (which should've been obvious) and who was going to join her for a run in the morning?

We finally make it to the awards ceremony at Abracadabra.  It is packed; as lovely as this venue is, Paul's event has far outgrown the confines of the cafe's back patio.  The only race I've been to with a similar feel is the Leadville 100's Sunday morning awards. It's an enjoyable and necessary-feeling gathering to bring appropriate closure to the weekend's fun.  After retreating to Zippy's--an iconic Rotorua coffeehouse--for brunch and caffeine, I'm left with the Aussie duo of Mick and Meckenstock.  Matt's rental car is our ticket back to the Auckland airport three hours to the north the next morning, so we're left with an afternoon to kill in Rotorua.

Nicola Gildersleeve with her 100K Champ trophy. Photo: PP.
Handing out awards at the prize-giving. Photo: PP.
Matt and Mick missed out on the hot pools Thursday night, so I offer to try and navigate us back to the Secret Spot for some more thermal soaking.  It takes several tries to locate the unmarked pools south of town as it was dark Thursday night and I hadn't exactly been paying attention, but soon enough we're back in the water. Once submerged, we almost immediately realize our fatal error of forgetting beverages, but hot springs have a way of evoking inertia so we're not motivated for quite some time to leave (I'll skip anecdotes about pig-hunters and Americans).  Once we do, though, it's straight to the pub, with a stop by the hotel to pick up Mike Le Roux.

Mike is a triathlete turned ultramarathoner after winning the Ultraman (Ironman distances times two) World Champs in 2010 and entertains with stories of his adopted Australian hometown of Cairns (he's a South African transplant) and swimming with sharks. One pint turns into three and before we know it, Matt is calling in sick for work the next day (he's not even in the same country, afterall), the sun is setting, and we're all a bit too wobbly to make the minimal effort to find some free camping.  Paul has left me with an open invite to his house, though, so we make our way back there.  Despite arriving unannounced after what must be the longest, most exhausting weekend of Paul's year, he welcomes us with warmth and more brews before we finally get around to cooking some dinner.  It's fitting that the weekend closes at Paul's house, because it is only with his vision, bottomless hospitality, and enthusiasm that the weekend's events would've happened at all.


JeffO said...

Some people have all the fun.
Hey, I like your choice of reading materials (last photo). Nice contribution.

William said...

Really nice write up Tony. Safe travels. Another anecdote confirming that ultra running and libations often go hand in hand. Looking forward to the new Walkmen album as much as I am?

Pez said...

Nice reading.
Thanks a lot.
Keep on enjoying

Paul Petch said...

Really cool meeting and working with you Tony. Happy trails and hope to photograph you "out there" again soon. Cheers.


QbaKrause said...

ANto, you do look like ALf in those glasses. Love your blog though.

Greetz from Poland.


dean schmiedel said...

my kinda people...almost everything ends in a brew or two--safe travels...peace

Kristian Day said...

Ahhhh, so many Brews.

K Day

Jody Arnott said...

Great read Anton. Thanks again for taking the time to give us an interview on the beautiful blue lake. I had a fantastic weekend following you and the other runners around with my camera. The finished film will be on YouTube within the next week.

Barry Bliss said...

I printed your post out (minus photos) and read it at home.
I am an avid reader of books, and your writing is book worthy for sure.
Keep it up.
If you were writing a book and I could I would pre-order it right now.

Paul Charteris said...

Thanks Anton,

It was truly magnificane to have you here - and you know you are welcome back anytime. I cannot guarantee there will be anymore furniture in Casa Charteris in 12 months time, but there will always be a welcoming and warm Kiwi ultra. running community.

Jody has just posted the video online too:


Paul Charteris

Unknown said...

nicely written as always Anton !

Juoksentelija said...

Crazy cool pictures ;)