Race report by Brendan Davies
The Tarawera Ultramarathon is a 100km trail race, running through some of New Zealand’s most beautiful fern forests, pass tranquil lakes and roaring waterfalls. This year it attracted some of the cream of International ultra trail runners including Western States course record holder Timothy Olsen, young gun Sage Canaday, Jason Schlarb, Mick Donges and Vajin Armstrong to name a few.
Team Inov-8 consisted of myself and my fellow Aussie Shona Stephenson. We simply could not miss this opportunity to race against the World’s best. We were both keen to use this race as a launchpad for more international races later in the year, including UTMF and various Skyrunning races.
We arrived on Thursday and immediately became part of the Tarawera circus; interviews and photo shoots and that kind of thing. Shona and I looked the part in our new Inov-8 gear. On Friday we were fortunate to sit on a panel for an ultra running seminar. It was a great way to learn a few new things ourselves from our fellow panellists and spread the Inov-8 message.
Race morning came, and it was time put in place the fruits of a lot of training and conditioning. I was keen to mix it up with the elite company. I was not here for a picnic or to ‘run free’ to quote another competitor; I was here to race! With the original race course being changed owing to bushfire threats, it was clear in my mind at least that the course had become both tougher and one that would suit runners with a love of technical and tricky trail. Gone was a gradually descending last 40km on smooth firetrail which was replaced with a simple ‘out and back’ on the trickiest part of the course. For this reason I swapped my shoe choice from the TrailRoc 245s to my trusty X-Talon 212’s. The extra grip on the trails was sure to give me no problems with my footing.
The first 20km was probably the easiest part of the course, free flowing and open on well groomed trail, and I was sure I had to use this section to my advantage. I led out the pack of Sage, Vajin and Mick; breezing through stunning lush fern forests and past still, blue lakes. On the first climb of the day I passed Salomon’s Greg Vollet who was running the 60K option and wondered if my early pace was going to come back to trouble me later in the race. Out of Checkpoint 1 and on the small section of road running I opened up the lead to a minute. I was running under threshold and felt fine, being careful to drink regularly and refuel myself with Hammer Perpetuem. I was the only runner in the top group who went with the pack option; it’s what I’m used to and secretly was hoping that the day would heat up and those just carrying a 500mL bottle would come undone somewhat later in the day.
On a small gravel road climb, Sage put in a surge and glided past. It was a scary how he was attacking the hill and there was no way I was going to race him here. Entering the forest and then starting the first major climb of the day, the trail was turning to narrow , rocky, singletrack. Varjin joined me half way up the ascent and trotted a little off in the distance. I was keen to stick with Vajin. We have raced each other a couple of times and are closely matched. So far we were one a piece in the head to heads and I was keen to push him today.
The long descent to CP2 at Lake Okataina was no problem for the 212s and I was able to scoot down the descent and a good clip and hold my place. Entering the forest once again, the heavy breathing of Timothy Olsen got louder with each stride and it wasn’t long before this superstar of the sport cruised by. From here the trail is a real mixed bag of lumpy up downs, exposed tree roots, rocky outcrops and small rock ledges. It was very difficult to get into any type of rhythm and the leg between Humphries Bay and the Outlet was a real low patch for me.
When these things happen, I’ve learnt the best thing to do is to get back to basics and it may sound silly but take it ‘one step at a time’. On the positive, my hydration and nutrition was on track and I felt with a bit of time I’d be back into this race. Half way through the last leg before the turnaround, Sage and I ran past each other. I estimated he had opened up at least a 30 minute gap in 60km. Phenomenal running on this tricky trail, although I did wonder if he was going to face a big battle on the tough way back.
Approaching the turn we passed the magnificent, rumbling, thundering Tarawera Falls. The energy release from the water was contagious and I instantly felt rejuvenated. I’m so thankful that running has taken me to some of the most beautiful places in the world and this was just another breathtaking memory that I will remember forever. It was very tempting to just stop there and then, go for a swim under the falls and chill. But I still had under half the race to run!
At the turn I was about 12 minutes behind Vajin and 15 minutes behind Timothy and with a renewed spirit I was determined to do anything I could to make some ground on them on the return home.
The last few legs consisted of me pretty much going over many mental strategies and keeping my positive thoughts up…visualising Vajin around the next corner and really concentrating on my form. I was aware of Mick Donges and Jason Schlarb and other s behind too that would only be too happy to pounce if I was to falter. Entering the last leg, I gulped down some Coke and knew the trickiest parts of the course were over and only one big climb to go before a few kilometres of downhill to the finish line. I wanted to finish strong and pull in the minutes I’d let slip by earlier in the race. I was happy how I climbed, on tired legs I only walked a couple of the steeper sections and pulled out a couple of sub 4 minute kms between the 95 and 102.5km (the actual distance) section to the finish.
Although I just missed the podium, it was a tremendously rewarding race for me for a number of reasons. Now I know why Sage and Timothy sit at the pinnacle of the sport. I’m determined to reach another level in my racing and seeing these guys produce that has inspired me a great deal.
I want to thank my Australian supporters barefootinc, as well as Inov-8, Injinji and Hammer Nutrition. It was great fun helping out at their various stalls at the race registration.