Before the race
The Tarawera 100k, the second race of the Ultra Trail World Tour and one of the few 100k Western States qualifiers, took place this past Saturday, February 6th in Rotorua, New Zealand (aka “RotoVegas” to the kiwis – a sarcastic way of describing its charmed nightlife). Last summer, as I sat in my office needing a distraction from the daily grind (which is actually what I’m doing right now), I decided it would be nice to get an epic race on the bucket list. The last race I had traveled far for was for a stage rage in Iceland back in 2013 – it was time to sate my deep need for adventure. I had remembered reading Sarah Lavender Smith’s blog entry about the race earlier in the year (she’s a local elite here in the bay area and a really nice person) and loving her account. Also, I have a slew of relatives in Auckland so at the time, it seemed like it was meant to be. So I registered on a whim, not knowing how/if I would ever be able to make it happen with my busy life. Well, I made it happen – cyber Monday rolled around and Joe Condon messages me that he had found half price tickets on Air New Zealand from SFO to Auckland, nonstop. It was on! Joe was going to rent a campervan and be a nomad and go fishing and meet me in Rotorua where he would help my cousins crew and then he would pace me for the last 12 or so miles, starting from what is known as “the loop of despair” at mile 51.
The week before leaving for New Zealand went by super fast – I had to organize my family. I’m pretty much the glue that holds everything together at home, so I had to organize stuff at home for my absence, deal with the guilt of leaving for a week, finally getting anxious about the actual race (the course, the weather), last-minute purchases, packing…but of course, it always gets done – but thinking about getting it all done was a bit stressful. As far as my training leading up to Tarawera, I felt ready. I had completed Rio del Lago 100 in November and felt like I still had that fitness, and on top of keeping up with my long runs and weekly quality runs, I finished 2 pretty strong 50ks in December, the Malibu Canyon 50k in Calabasas and the Woodside Trail Run here locally. Had also completed a “plank challenge” started by our very own Carrie Chavez, which I kept up even after the 30 days were over – 5 minutes, with a minute of holding various plank positions. And then there was the “Gun Show” pushup challenge started by my friend Jessi Goldstein. So, completed both challenges and had the confidence that I had a stronger core and stronger arms (although you wouldn’t know if by looking at my arms – the muscles are definitely hiding in there!). I also kept up with my weekly 1-on-1 yoga sessions with Lisa, focusing on stability and perfecting the utthita hasta padangusthasana pose (I mainly like saying and writing it) and, finally, had finished up a detox cleanse. But as we all know, we can’t get it ALL done. I had sort of been bad about rolling and getting monthly massages – heck, that would be way too much focus and money on myself as I feel like I already invest a lot of time and money into my running as opposed to other stuff like maybe looking presentable…Anyway, I finally finished packing on Sunday morning, the morning of my departure. My goal was to fit everything into 1 bag, but it wasn’t going to happen – I ended up with 1 bag filled with ultra stuff and the other with fabulous summer clothes. I was off.
The first thing I noticed as soon as we landed in Auckland was the humidity. I had forgotten about that aspect as it is mid-summer in New Zealand in February. Yikes. But my cousin said the weather could change and the race was about 5 days away. The forecast even called for a bit of rain in Rotorua, I mean “rotoVegas”…That week, I ate a lot of really great healthy food, went for a few easy but hot and humid runs along the Auckland waterfront, relishing in the fact that I was in an exotic new place and clearing my head, and just basically hung out with my cousin, Natasha. One thing I thought was interesting and funny. When out for said runs, I knew I had to be careful to look both ways before crossing as cars drive on the opposite side of the street – but what I didn’t count on was all the jaywalking going on in NZ! Jaywalkers galore! And there I was all American and rule-following desperately trying to find a cross-walk. At one point, I pressed the walk button to cross and when the little green man didn’t light up after about 5 minutes of waiting, a very nice older woman on a bike rode alongside me and said “cross with me – you’ll be ok”. Lol.
Weather that day – had rained hard all day and night beforehand and the rain was forecasted to continue throughout the day. The race director joked that if we wanted to skip the rain, then we’d have to take a nap along the trail and wait until before midnight to continue on. 91% humidity. I’m such a wimp in the humidity and heat! But I was used to all the mud. Woke up at 3:30 am, much to the dismay of Natasha and Moira who were going to crew and drive me to the start. Magically, I had gone 30 days without my morning cups of coffee, so really enjoyed having a nice cup of coffee in Joe’s campervan, which was parked right at the start. Made casual conversation with Joe, Natasha and Moira, banged my head on the roof of the campervan while getting in and then we all walked to the start, in the rain. It was quite warm out already, so the compulsory seam-sealed jacket we were required to have with us at all times, went immediately around my waist. At that point I started to feel that pre-race electricity in that magical lit up place in the redwoods, taking everything in. At one point, Natasha says “why is everybody checking each other out?” haha. Then there was the Maori welcome, or the “Haka”. Man was that an experience to hear and it actually made me a bit emotional. The gun goes off and the race starts, a steady steady climb up.
I was lucky to have had a nice chat with Sarah Lavender Smith the week before the race as she had absolutely killed it last year. It was so nice of her to offer up her take on the race and her memories and give me whatever advice she could give me. It really helped me know what to expect along the course. The one thing she told me was that I needed to divide the course up into 3 stages. The first stage is like a marathon – a stampede and crowded, where I needed to conserve energy. The second stage would be very technical, rooty, narrow and tricky and is where she told me she started to fall apart for a spell. The final stage is like running a hilly marathon, with the added-in “loop of despair” and with the last 5k in the woods before being dumped out into the street. Ok, so conserve energy in the first third of the race and don’t get caught up in the marathon-vibe stampede, then just survive the second half like it’s Hurt 100, and then run a marathon.
Basically, the first third of the race was fun and I got to see Joe, Natasha and Moira at the first main aid station at Blue Lake. However, I got caught up in a huge conga line for the first 5 miles as the mud was way too slippery, so we were basically hiking for miles, running a few steps and then hiking. And it was unlike any mud I had encountered. Not like clay, not real sticky, just realllllly slippery and spongey. Lots of people were falling all over the place, including me. The downhills were comical, like a ride and at some points we were hanging on to some branches on steep descents and sharp climbs. But good conversation was had – we were all just laughing at each other in a good way. All this time, I’m eating just real food and gels and cliff shots and some boiled pearl potatoes I had purchased at the grocery store, topped off with pink Himalayan sea salt. Took a Pepcid AC at the start and carried a bunch of tums and pepcids with me to take as needed. I also took 2 salt tabs when I started to get sausage fingers. Ran by lots of carnage – people cramped up mainly and having GI issues. I stopped to help a few and was glad it wasn’t me, because I had been there many many times before. The aid station fare was like here in the US, but a bit better. Lots of pizza and this really soft brown bread slathered with butter. I was all over that. There were also lots of big climbs in that first third, but I’m used to it, so I just put my head down and hiked smartly up (hiking and uphill running is not my strength) and risked it and hammered the downhills, passing runners.
The second third. Hmmm. Saw my crew at the aid station right before that and the sun was out and it was hot. Downed a GU and since my feet were soaked I debated changing socks, but it turns out I had not put socks in that drop bag. Joe made me feel better by saying it would be ok and that I could change socks at the next drop bag point. Basically for those 25 or so miles, I was either trying not to fall down a cliff and ran in the middle of a train of nice people – so that we could endure it together. I remember lots of roots. LOTS of roots, mud of course, slipping, and parts where I had to scale something on all fours, kind of like a spider. And then down down on my butt, while grabbing onto branches to slow me down. I had a few moments of just being over it and feeling mentally negative. That’s where I knew I had to keep eating. And I remember telling myself “your stomach isn’t bothering you and you have good energy, so get over it”. Joe says I sped up during this part of the race but I felt like I was so slow! So finally that middle part was almost over and I was nearing the Tarawera Falls Aid station. A major aid station with my drop bag, a change of socks, more food and it was also where the 62k finish line was. 85k and 100k runners to the right please. Everybody happy and cheering on the finishers there. But not me yet.
The last third. I am glad that the trail was going to open up and that that I could finally run that marathon. But I suddenly felt my right leg get extremely stiff. Felt great, but every time I started to run, it would stiffen up and I basically kept having to stop and stretch every ¼ mile. Kicked in my yoga moves, so there I was doing my yoga stretching. “You ok?” I kept getting. “Yes, just stretching!” I’d reply. It was frustrating not being able to run consistently throughout this part. It was also very puddly and muddy and exposed, so I was like a wet rat. I relied a lot on the race arm tattoo I purchased at the expo, which showed the elevation and where the aid stations were. It helped me know what was coming. And I know that “the loop of despair” was coming at the 79k mark, but that Joe would be there to endure it with me. I get to the Titoki aid station and a nice lady wearing a nurse’s cap asks me how I’m doing and I say great. But I don’t see Joe so I figure oh well, I just have to keep going. Turns out they arrived about 20 minutes after I had left the aid station. It was hard to get to it. At this aid station, the lady there says “you’re going to do a 5k loop and then come back here”…to which I reply “oh yes, I know this is the loop of despair” and another aid station helper says “don’t you know? it’s now called the loop of joy!” haha. There’s about a ¼ mile run and then a sharp turn to the base of a steep climb. I whip out my yoga moves and then the next thing you know, a bunch of runners are following suit “that’s a good idea” some said. So there we are, a group of 5 of us stretching. Lisa, you’d be so proud of me. So up we go. I had to stop a few times to just really get my mental bearings. My right leg was also hurting me, which didn’t help. But finally we reach the top and I see a nice, long downhill. Ahhhh. I take off, dropping all the runners I had just climbed with. Suddenly, I hear “veronica!” and it’s Joe running up towards me. Yay! From then on, we ran/walked the rest of the race together, with Joe encouraging me every step of the way. I had my game face on and was passed by no one. Loved feeling stronger. But, of course, towards the end of the race, you get tired and over it, especially if you know that the finish line is around the corner. Enter the last part of the race, which I call “the cry baby stage”
I basically turned into a whiney, annoying baby those last 6 miles or so. I relied too much on that race tattoo which didn’t show the fact that there were some short but steep climbs still in there. It looked all flat on the tattoo. My garmin had also died so I had no idea how long I had left but I was sure I didn’t have that many miles left. But when I hit the second to last aid station, only to be told that I had 10k left, my spirits turned sour. I was pissed. And the funny thing is that I was sure that I’d be able to finish Tarawera in under 14 hours. No problem. But at this point, I was now getting close to not getting my western states qualifier in under 16 hours! WTH!! I was desperate. Although my garmin died, I also wore my watch so I could see the time ticking by, ticking by, ticking by towards the 16 hour qualifier deadline. I was stressed and forcing myself to run when I wasn’t feeling it and STILL relying on that tattoo only to fall apart and complain to Joe when we’d have to climb again. At one point, a nice volunteer was lighting up part of the trail and I ask him how much longer and he says about 1.5k. I normally say thank you for being out here, but instead baby Veronica says “are you sure about that?” And then there I am asking Joe to calculate EXACTLY how long that is, to which he replies that it’s about 2 laps around a track which normally would make me happy but instead I just roll my eyes and scream “what the F##@?” Poor Joe. Last year he had to deal with throwing up me and now he’s dealing with little spoiled baby me. To top it off, we run by a runner and his pacer who tell me “you’re going the wrong way”. I stop, turn around and say WHAT?? “I’m joking he says”…Look of death, people, look of death. So I finally finish with 10 minutes to spare, so just under 16 hours. A difficult race, where I gave it my all, emotionally and physically. I tried so so hard. And seeing Moira cheering me on and Natasha was such a gift. I am so grateful for Joe, Natasha and Moira. And I was so concerned that Natasha’s shoes were going to get muddy as she’s a very refined person who doesn’t go out onto trails. She calls herself a “JAFA” which means “Just Another F#Q$*ing Aucklander”…but she says she learned a lot from her dirty cousin. =)
So there, that’s my account of one of the most electrifying race experiences of my life thus far. So so pleased that the nutrition and energy levels were spot on. The race was so well run and everyone was so friendly and the cups of coke were huge and not teeny like here in the US. My last few days in NZ were spent visiting the Glowworm caves in Waitomo, trying Hokey Pokey Ice Cream, eating a lot and spending time with family – oh, and dealing with massive massive chafing all over my body from the constant wetness. . I’m talking crying in the shower level of chafing. 16 hours of chafing. If you’re going to wear short shorts, body glide is key! The picture below shows me in a dress. It was all I could wear as it wasn’t sticking to the chafing spots!