Race Review: Sally Nash Takes On The Tarawera Ultra

Sally Nash is a regular TempoFit-er who has been making massive fitness gains over the past 18 months. So to cap off a great block of training, last weekend she took on the Tarawera Ultra (85k) with some great success, finishing 3rd! Here’s her experiences of this world-renowned Kiwi trail race.

Tarawera Ultra Review

So what on Earth inspired you to sign up for the epic feat of endurance that is the Tarawera Ultra?
Bryon Mosen! We were running together in the Waitaks and he told me his next goal was the 60km Tarawera. I admired his ambition and the way he described the race made it sound amazing. This thought remained in the back of my mind for a month or two, until Bryon mentioned that places for the Tarawera were almost full, so without stopping to think about it too much, I signed up! (Bryon suffered a bit of bad health during his training but went on to achieve a decent, respectably time – nice work!)

Up until that point what had been your longest run? And would you have believed you could not only complete, but race an 85k event?
60km was the longest distance I had run previously. I had originally entered the 60km distance in the Tarawera, and so had this goal in mind when training. I knew I could complete the distance, and so my aim was to improve my speed.

It was only a couple of weeks before the Tarawera that I decided to swap to the 85km distance. The event organisers sent an email out that described the course between the 60 and 85km section as a gentle downhill, running alongside a river. And all the 60km runners would need to make their way to the finish line of the 85km run, to return to Rotorua from the Tarawera forest. So I thought that I may as well run that section.

At that point all the hard training was done, and I felt I could cope with a longer distance. I think it would have been trickier if I had decided this distance when I had first committed to the Tarawera. Imagine feeling tired at the end of a 20km run, and knowing that in a few months you’ll need to run over 4 times that distance. A little daunting!

You’re working a demanding job and had a big overseas trip in your key training phase, how have you managed to squeeze the high mileage training in? 
At the start line of Tawawera I met a participant who is a doctor and also a mum to two kids under the age of five. So if training does sometimes seem to eat a lot of hours, it pays to remember there are always people who are busier than you who still manage to commit to the time.

For me, having a very supportive partner helps! Mike didn’t complain once over all the times I nicked off with the car and disappeared into the Waitaks or drove to some other remote running trail for several hours! It helped, too, having someone who was willing to pop on three thermals and a ski jacket to join me on a run when I was in South Korea, where it was -5C on a warm day!

I also count myself lucky to have friends who run, so training can be also a catch up with a mate. Running to and from work does help to fit training in, but really, any day that I run gives me the headspace and strength to make me somewhat calm and normal, so training is never a burden.

What was your longest training run and your biggest training weekend before the race?
I ran a couple of marathons in the months leading up to the Tarawera, but probably the biggest training weekend was when I had two longish runs back to back, such as a 30ish km run on the Saturday followed by a 20ish km run on the Sunday.

Making sure that both days involved interesting routes and running buddies helped tackle those big weekends. Having a training plan that I had confidence in was helpful so that I knew I wasn’t running too far or not far enough during the build-up.

The start of any race is a special time, but especially for the Tarawera Ultra. How did you find it?
I love the start of events, mainly because it makes for great people watching!

The race began before dawn so it was slightly spooky to hear lots of nervous people milling around trying to keep warm in the dark forest and see the lights of head torches bouncing off the trees. Quite a few of the 100km runners would need head torches for later too—not only were they starting in the dark, many were due to finish after dusk. These guys are absolutely incredible to have the strength, both mental and physical, to go on for so long.

What did you need gear-wise for the race?
The Tarawera is extremely well supported. Unlike other events where you need to be self-supported from start to finish (to carry your own water, food, first aid kit, emergency kit etc.) the aid stations and volunteers on the course gave some runners the confidence to run without any bag or bottles or anything. I’m used to carrying my own water and food, so brought my Camelback with me. And yes, trail shoes were needed.

What is the course like?
The first 60km are absolutely beautiful. I’m definitely going to return to the area to tramp/run/explore it more.

The course largely consists of single trail, running around a few lakes, past waterfalls and cascades and up into some native bush, with about 2500 metres of ups and downs. Despite reading that the section after the 60km mark is pleasant, I found it uninspiring compared to the first section: long straight forestry trails through pine forest.

The guys running the 100km had a “loop of despair” thrown in, which involved even more long stretches of forestry trail.

It’s a long race, so were you running alone or were there some good groups to tag along with?
As to be expected with 1000 runners all heading for the same single trail, the start was congested and there was a lot of walking for at least 30 minutes until the first forestry trail was reached and people could start reaching their intended pace. People were swapping jokes and stories and I bumped into a few people I know, so it was nice to have the company.

There were a fair number of aid stations where volunteers never failed to give a big cheer, and many of these stations were accessible to supporters too which was cool.

After the 37km aid station, the number of runners thinned out and it became a solo run. There was one stretch of about 6km where I didn’t see another person (and I started to wonder if I may have taken a wrong turn)!

The final 10km was amazing because that’s where the 100km runners looped back and joined the 85km runners, so I was passed by a few people who had run 15km further than me and were holding an amazing pace! I was lucky enough to see the 4th 100km female whizz by, which was inspiring.

And one cool thing about the Tarawera is that they allow you a “pacer”—someone who can run with you for the final stretch as a support, so it was lovely to see Mike waiting to be by my side for the last 10km.

Ten hours is a long time to do anything but what did you do for fueling (nutrition and hydration)?
It sounds odd but the advice people give for long distances is to eat even when you don’t feel like it, but to only drink when you’re really thirsty.

The Medical Director of the race was full of dire warnings of people drinking too much water during an event and not taking on enough sodium and potassium. He made sure that all the 85 and 100km runners weighed in at the start and end of the run, to check on dehydration and the opposite condition where too much fluid is taken on.

So I made sure to eat a couple of bites every 30 minutes or so, and to try to drink only at aid stations. I like to eat real food rather than gels, so had packed a picnic of bananas, figs, home-made musli bars and peanut butter sandwiches. The aid stations were well equipped—some had Hells Pizza and kumara wedges, as well as mountains of jelly beans, nuts, watermelon etc.—so you could get by with packing no food for yourself at all.

Did you incorporate walking in the race or take any complete stops?
There were a couple of steep hills that I walked up, I stopped at some of the aid stations to reapply sun cream, and did have a couple of quick toilet stops.

The longest amount of walking was at the start because of the bottleneck of runners on the trail. This was probably quite handy for a lot of people, as it stopped them from starting off with too eager a pace.

Were you aware what place you were in and were you thinking about racing or was it just about getting to the finish?
I didn’t know my placing until the following morning when a friend texted me. A pretty cool surprise.

I was lucky that all the elites had chosen to run the 100km race otherwise there’s no way I could have achieved a placing! Ruby Muir, first woman in the 100km race, finished her run an hour before I did and had run 15km further!

For the first 60km I tried to keep an easy, light pace. Once I’d passed the 60km mark, a combination of realising that I was feeling (relatively) okay, the scenery becoming dull, and realising that I could beat the time I had projected for myself, meant I started to pick up the pace. This was one of the stretches where I hardly saw another soul, so it was about racing myself rather than trying to catch anyone up.

What was your meal of choice after the race?
Haha, Indian!

Do you think you’ll be back to give the 100k a shot?
Probably not. I like a bit of variety so will be looking out for a new adventure!

Any more tips for those looking to run the Tarawera next year?
Yep, go for it! I highly doubt that there was anyone who finished the Tarawera and thought to themselves, “Well, that was a waste of time.”

A huge congrats to Sally and her inspirational run and her dedication to consistent training. Go Sally! And special mention goes out to Mike Wilkinson for winning the Partner of the Year Award!

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