The Tarawera Ultramarathon 50K ends on the rocky Hotwater Beach, not far outside Rotorua, on New Zealand’s North Island. After 7 hours, 59 minutes and 17 seconds of near-solitary running, the cheering crowds along that final narrow track are disorienting but welcome, and I focus carefully on each step as I navigate the rugged terrain, climbing the final steep, but brief, hill to the finish line.
Upon crossing, I immediately enter the open arms of a cheerfully costumed race official. Crowds are cheering, music is playing, but after 8 hours of constant and demanding physical activity, the refuge of an embrace that envelops my entire being is exactly what I need - no matter that it’s from a complete stranger. I exhale deeply, sinking into the comfort, and time stands still as we hold on for a few seconds more. He asks how I feel, and I answer honestly, smiling - I feel great, wonderful in fact. The course was challenging, but I am content with my performance. “You did very well,” he says, placing the finisher’s medal around my neck, evaporating the seclusion of our private moment. I notice my best friend and travel buddy standing closely by, moving in to offer her own congratulations before leading me to find dry clothes and a warm meal.
In actuality, while my performance at the Tarawera 50K was strong and consistent, with only a few minutes’ down time to refuel, it was also my slowest 50K pace to date. With 5,643 feet of uphill climbing - more than any other race I’ve completed - I knew it would be challenging. But the mythical destination that is New Zealand, and its landscape that is like something from a fantasy world, fueled my curiosity to participate. I wasn’t disappointed - the course wound through a towering redwood forest, across vast expanses of sheep-dotted farmland, over several fences (who saw those coming?!), and its many hill climbs offered gorgeous views of the expansive Tarawera Lake.
Just over a year earlier, I signed up for my first ultramarathon (the Patagonia International Marathon 60K), motivated by a quest to achieve something audacious - to see exactly how far I could run and still feel good. It was to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I trained as perfectly as I could, and was, amazingly, the first woman to finish. That accomplishment felt very good, and I decided to maintain a high mileage lifestyle for as long as it kept serving me.
Since then, I’ve completed 4 subsequent 50K races, including the Tarawera, pounding a path to self discovery, making personal strides that had nothing to do with pace or finishing time. The determination that drove me to complete ultra after ultra in quick succession over the past year was as much about testing (ok, pushing) my limits as it was about following my passion. Learning to run through rain and snow, over frozen earth and through ice-cold streams provided perspective and patience. Experiencing a low blood sugar bonk because I failed to sufficiently fuel taught me to respect my body’s signals, and view doing so as an investment, rather than liability. Training alone in the woods for hours at a time taught me to rely on myself in the most fundamental ways and to make calculated decisions quickly. And though ultrarunning can appear to be a solitary sport, ultrarunners look out for each other and are quick to create community among complete strangers. Meeting and racing with runners of all ages and stages of life has been both humbling and satisfying. Those lessons and experiences have given me strength, confidence and perspective that will forever be a part of who I am.
I wouldn’t trade my first 5 ultras, or their impact on my life, for anything. I completed them because I was driven to achieve things I’d never even contemplated before, and because some part of me needed to know that I had the toughness it took to do so. And over time, the pressure of training to pass my own tests has fallen away, and the possibility of chasing experiences purely out of desire has replaced them.
When I crossed the Tarawera 50K finish line and melted into the arms of that complete stranger, I knew in my heart that the test I’d somewhat subconsciously set just one year earlier was no longer of consequence. Whatever I’d been trying to prove to myself about my physical ability, stamina, toughness and grit, had been done. I will continue to run distance, and am strongly considering the possibility of conquering a 50 miler in the near future, but I know I’ll do so only when my body is ready for the challenge, when my mind has sufficiently relaxed from the pressures of training, and when the passion in my heart will rest for nothing else.
Standing at a finish line on a remote beach in one of the world’s most beautiful places, the feeling that enveloped me just as reassuringly as that hug was one that surprised and pleased me - it was the confidence of closure, and the excitement of finding out what’s next.
Maryland's first-ever State Park, Patapsco Valley, is located in Catonsville, Maryland, not far from Baltimore, and about 45 minutes' drive from DC. I visited the park on a whim, in the mood for a hike, and Patapsco Valley did not disappoint.
The park's entrance is not far from I-95, and the park itself is easy to navigate thanks to the many signs, trail markers and maps available. It's a carry-in/carry-out operation, so trash cans are one thing you won't find available here - be sure to plan accordingly and bring your own bags.
My hike started on the Cascade Trail, connected with Morning Choice, then wound back to my starting point on Ridge Trail (link to trail map). The Cascade Trail appears to be among the most popular, crossing a beautiful waterfall just steps from the trailhead. I'd recommend starting early if you wish to avoid the crowds that visit specifically for the photo op it provides.
A note to extreme adventurers - this park is flanked by residential communities, which are visible from the trail at times. If you're looking for a secluded experience, this is probably not the place for you. That being said, the trails at Patapsco were lightly trafficked, extremely well marked and clean. It's especially conducive to mountain bikers, who were out in great numbers on this warm fall weekend. Overall, a really nice spot to spend day outdoors.
I’m well over the half way point in training for my next big race, the Tawawera Ultramarathon 50K, which takes place in Rotorua, New Zealand. (Check out their marketing video. It’s a little cheesy, but wow. That scenery)
The Tarawera 50K will be my second international race ever - my first was the 2015 Patagonia International Marathon 60K just one year ago.
This will be my 5th ultra-distance race since then, and though I feel like I’ve been training pretty much the entire time, something about preparing to race in a foreign country - running with people from all over the world through an exotic landscape I’ve never experienced - adds extra excitement.
Given that I was training for my first ultramarathon exactly one year ago, it’s hard not compare the experiences. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned over the past year, and am keeping in mind as I prepare for the Tarawera 50K:
The training plan is guide, not gospel.
When training for my first ultra, I followed Hal Koerner’s 50K training plan exactly, and it paid off when I was the first woman to cross the finish line in Patagonia. That training plan took me from a casual mid-distance runner to a mid/front-pack endurance athlete, mentally and physically.
Since then, I’ve been maintaining a solid base of 40-60 miles per week, so I’m starting race prep for the Tarawera 50K from a difference place, in terms of fitness, knowledge of the outdoors, nutritional needs, and the endurance mindset. While one year ago, I was solely focused on building my mileage base, I’ve got that down now, and that focus has shifted to building efficiency as a trail runner, and maintaining mobility. While I’m referencing Hal’s training plan for the Tarawera 50K, and following it mostly, I’m also referencing my body’s signals, taking time for rest when I need it, and prioritizing my CrossFit routine to maintain time with friends, and avoid burn out from too much running.
The long runs are still necessary.
Short runs in a training plan keep your body conditioned for movement, and your mind prepped for competition. Long runs build endurance, discipline and confidence. Skip them and you’ll pay for it on race day. The adage, “you get what you give” rings true in this case. If you do nothing else, get the long runs done.
Train specifically, or not at all.
In my short year of many ultras, I’ve learned some very real lessons about the importance of training for the specific conditions you'll encounter on race day. Case in point, I trained with great discipline for the Holiday Lake 50K this past February, only to finish with the worst race experience of my life. How did that happen? My training took place at a time when the Mid-Atlantic was covered in ice and snow, and rather than throw on some crampons and brave the elements, I took a lot of my long runs on the treadmill in a cozy indoor gym. Even a treadmill run on a steep incline will not prepare you for real world, in the woods, frozen-wind-blowing-in-your-face reality.
The Tarawera 50K is completely trail, with about 5,000 FT of net elevation gain, and will take place during New Zealand’s spring time, so temps will likely be averaging around mid-50º F, and there's a high probability of rain, for at least a portion of the day. The race will include the largest field I’ve seen in an ultra, so I’ll be mentally prepared to start with a pack, and find my own rhythm. This is what I know, and this is what I’m training for.
Trust your intuition, and remember your why.
I run because it adds balance to my life, gives me self confidence and contributes to a positive outlook, which ultimately carries over into my relationships and work life. If you feel like you’re over-training, take a rest day. If you’re losing sleep at night because you’re stressed about the next day’s training run, ease up on yourself. You’re already pushing your body to physical extremes it may have never experienced before - putting added pressure on yourself will do no good. Remember why you run, and let that motivation be your north star.