Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tarawera Ultramarathon - Part 1

On Saturday, 19 March I set out for the biggest challenge of my life, but first let's back up. A little more than a week before I had traveled to New Zealand with 6 friends from WOOT (Women on Okinawa Trails). Five of us were coming from Okinawa, one was meeting up from Alaska, and Tiff was starting from Illinois. We've all run together for about a year and 5 of us had made the journey to Mongolia last July for a trail marathon. We have a wide range of runners in our group, including multiple Boston Qualifiers and more average runners like me - a 4:30 marathoner.

Maybe I was just cranky or maybe I'm just used to being on my own a lot since Chris is often away, but by a few days into the trip I was ready for some alone time. I was really looking forward to my 10 hours alone in the woods.

We lined up in pre-dawn hours with the goal of completing 60K through NZ terrain. Anna and Andrea originally signed up for the 100K and had completed some incredible training - extremely long back to back days of running.

We started at the Redwoods Visitor Center in Rotorua. I loved this starting point because it reminded me of my summer vacation's at my grandparent's house in the Bay Area of California. On parts of our drive earlier in the week I spied eucalyptus, but I didn't smell any of that distinct, crisp smell as I waited to start the race. The Tarawera Ultra is in its third year and had over 200 runners split between the 60K, 85K, 85K relay, and 100K.

Daylight broke just in time for the start and no head lights were needed. The start was a good climb out of the visitor center with both steep inclines and stairs added in for fun. There was kind of a weird rhythm of running the downhills and flats that might last 20 seconds and then everyone would walk the uphills and stairs. I knew I was near the back of the pack and I was ok with that. I didn't know what to expect from this race. I've never gone this distance and I wasn't sure how to pace. I do know that once we got to the top it opened on to a beautiful landscape with a lake and the town of Rotorua in the distance.

The sun glimmering off Blue Lake made me smile and the fun descents had me giggling out loud. I loved this portion of the race. The first section was about 12km before we hit the aid station. The aid station was fully stocked with jelly beans, chips, ginger, endurotabs, water, coke, and heed. The volunteers were all lovely and after a quick chit chat I was off again.

The second and third aid stations came up quickly because they are on the only road portion of the run and they are close together. I believe the second aid station was around 17km and the third at 20km. The second aid station had a timing mat and I clocked in at 63rd place, 22nd among women. I had gained a little speed on the road portion, but the last K up to the third aid station was a steep uphill and I took advantage of the walkortunity. There was a photographer right before the aid station. I asked him if I should pretend to run and he said that might be a good idea. The result was the best race photo I've ever had!

I had studied the race map and knew that the next aid station was a long way away so I took the time to refill my 2L Nathan hydration vest. Also, for those who like running details, I was eating 3 Clif Shot Bloks about every 45 minutes. I would also eat a couple jelly beans and a couple potato chips at the aid station. The weather was perfect - low 70s and even though it was sunny the trail was shaded for the most part.

While running the first 20K I stayed in very good spirits and was mentally strong. There were parts on the road that I knew I could push faster, but I wanted to be able to have something left at the end. Being so new to this kind of distance made it a little tricky to know how much effort to put out. I wanted to give 100%, but I wanted that 100% to last the whole race. It was hard to know where the balance was.

Between aid stations 3 and 4 there were about 17km. I saw an older gentleman on the course with no hydration pack or bottles. I don't know how he did it. They told us we could drink out of the creeks or lakes, but I didn't want to chance it. I was rationing out my water for this long section, but I was constantly thirsty. I had started hydrating a couple days before the race so I don't think I was dehydrated, but the longer I ran the more chips I ate at aid stations. I was definitely craving salt.

There were lots of steep climbs in this section and I would walk when needed. The website describes this section as "a test of fitness it is superb". During the entire race I was able to run all the flats, downhills, the rollers, and some of the not so steep inclines. I was really happy with that. This race really alerted me to the fact that I need to work on climbing. I trained on hills in Okinawa, but we've got nothing like the mountains in NZ! My legs would actually feel ok on the hills, but my breathing became labored and my heart rate would sky rocket. The entire race took place between 400m and 1400m above sea level. I know that doesn't seem like a lot, but it was constant ups and downs. At some point in this section I passed Kathleen who was slowed down with abdominal pain.

(Please continue to part 2 because blogspot won't let me upload more pictures to this post).

Tarawera Ultramarathon - Part 2

During this section I had a lot of time to think and was drawing inspiration from many sources. I could hear my mom saying, "you go girl", my BFF telling me "si, se puede", Monica cheering me on with "you are a champion, and Chris' facebook message of "keep moving forward". Keep moving forward became my mantra. I also thought about Dean Karnazes. For some reason his line "sometimes you're the fish, sometimes you're the fisherman" kept running through my head, even when it didn't fit the situation. It all worked for me.

I came into the 4th aid station at 37-38km feeling strong physically and mentally. It was a great surprise when I popped out of the woods and saw Anna and Jannine's daughters, Laura and Jade, and Jannine's dad there cheering us on. It was a great pick me up. There was another timing mat at this point and although my overall pace had slowed down, my placement had moved up to 54 overall (a 9 place improvement) and 18 for gender (a 4 place improvement).

As I was coming in Tiff was leaving. She wasn't feeling great and mentioned she was power walking, but let me tell you that tiny lady is a crazy fast power walker. I refilled my water again and ate more chips. The salt tasted great. I overheard someone say that we had finished the worst part and I asked race volunteers if that was true. One kind volunteer told me that "shitty" parts were coming up. I asked him his definition of shitty and he said it was going to get extremely technical with rocks and roots. He was not lying! Although my trail experience is admittedly limited, I have never seen trail like this. The first couple kilometers out of the aid station were very steep, but not yet technical. About 43km in I was starting to feel the effects of the race and turned on my ipod for the first time. I quickly had to hit shuffle since the first song to come on was Elton John's "I Guess That's Why They Call it The Blues". I definitely wasn't feeling that! Thank goodness for a little Cake - it always gets me running.

From about 40-52km the trail was a crazy, technical mess. There were parts where I was literally using my hands to crawl up a root mass or to get up the trail. This section forced me to pocket the camera because I was truly afraid that I was going to face plant. Shockingly, I did not fall. The thought I kept having as I timidly navigated this area was that I would love to just sit in the woods and watch as the front runners come through just to see how they run it. At this point I can't even imagine how to run on terrain like that. When I get back to the states I'm definitely volunteering at some ultras to see how it's done.

Although I did not fall, I did slip down a loose gravel edge once, but nothing major. I don't remember exactly, but maybe from about 45km or so we were back to running beside another gorgeous, crystal clear lake. Unfortunately, I couldn't take my eyes off the trail for long to take in the beauty.

Somewhere in here is where I really started to hurt - my quads, a weird place in my right shin that has never had problems, and the insides of both my knees - maybe my bursas. When the pain came I still thought of Dean's book "Run!" where he talks about how hard the runs can be and how you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. From 45km on my mantra became "it's not supposed to feel good". Even though it's not overly positive, that mantra really worked for me.

I don't want to make it sound like it was all sunshine and roses. There were some definite low points. Around 50K I teared up and started thinking this is so hard, but I quickly told myself to suck it up and got over it. Somewhere in this section I passed Steph, a very strong runner from our group who was having some major IT band problems.

The next to last aid station was at about 54km. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven because there was cold watermelon. Not only did watermelon sound good because I was racing, but the watermelons on Okinawa are well over twenty bucks so this was a real treat. I didn't stay long at this station because I knew the end was so close. As I was going out, Kathleen was coming in and she begged the volunteers to "please tell me the rest of the course is flat as a pancake". Apparently they don't have pancakes in NZ because those liars said it was downhill. There were still plenty of steep inclines and some very cruel sets of steep stairs.

Luckily, the scenery made up for it. We were running by a strong flowing river that opened on to beautiful waterfalls.

The views really were stunning, but I was trying to push the last 5K and give my full effort. At the aid station around 47km I had taken an endurotab (basically electrolytes). I don't know if it finally kicked in or if I just knew the end was near, but I really picked it up the last 5km.

Right around the 55km point my breath was taken away yet again. This time it wasn't a steep incline, but a wallaby jumping across my path that did it. I just stopped and watched the speedy marsupial hop away. It was incredible.

Just after the wallaby I came across Tiff power walking her way through the pain. I'm telling you - one speedy little lady. I told her she could do it and she tucked in right behind me until the end. This is always how we run. One of us will lead, the other will follow. The leader just all depends on the day.

Within the last 2km racers are treated to the incredible Tarawera Falls. They were amazing, but I didn't have time to dilly dally.

After the falls I was still trying to push hard because I was ready to be done! I thought I had about a kilometer to go so I was pleasantly surprised when I popped out of the woods and saw the finish line! I was even happier to see Jannine's dad there waiting for us and cheering us in! It was great to see a familiar face. Here's Tiff, Kathleen, and I at the finish:

From the 38K mark until the end I moved up another 9 spaces (54 to 45) and 2 more gender spots (18 to 16) and had a finish time of 10:25. Our WOOT runners who are 3:30 marathoners finished around 8:30. It was one heck of a course.

I am extremely happy with my effort and feel like I did all I could on the day. I clearly need to train more for climbs. After a few days of hobbling around with sore quads I was back to normal and went for a couple easy runs within 5 days of the race. Tiff had these great necklaces made for us to remember Tarawera.

I'm pretty sure this is an experience I'll never forget.