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  • Jen Bloss

2024 Tarawera Ultra Trail 50k Race Report

Because a chance to run on these gorgeous trails is worth the trip!

Well hello there! After a bit of time travel (aka, crossing the international date line), I’m back at home after the most fantastic time running an ultramarathon in New Zealand! A mere 6,500ish flight miles brought me to Rotorua, NZ, which is definitely the farthest I’ve ever traveled for a race. But this was no ordinary race- this was the 2024 Tarawera Ultra-Trail 50, which is actually one of the UTMB World Series races, and for this I had high expectations for a scenic course and well-run race. I did not leave disappointed! 

a forest of fern trees surround a small river with a bridge
New Zealand is magical

Why the Tarawera Ultra? Why travel so far for a race?

I honestly have no idea where I heard about this race, but I spend a lot of time clicking around on the internet for running-related things. But back in Summer of 2020, I ended up on the race website and saw photos and I knew- I MUST do this race! Honestly, it was the forest full of ferns and lots of shade that sucked me in. Also, one day I'd like to run a marathon on all 7 continents and for that I'd need an Oceania race. So I signed up.

Well, the time for the 2021 race approached, and New Zealand’s borders were completely closed to international runners due to COVID. Due to the circumstances, a 3-year deferral was granted for international runners. Eventually the end of 2023 rolled around, and I realized that yikes, year 3 is approaching, so I’d have to run the race now or forfeit the entrance fee I had paid (which was not a small amount!). I had trained well for the Woodside Ramble 50k in December, but it was taking me a while to recover from that hilly race. So it was with great hesitation that I registered for the Tarawera Ultra on December 31, at the 50k distance. I saw that the time cutoff was a generous 14 hours, so I figured that I could do a lot of power hiking in order to finish the race. It was happening.

New Zealand: a dream destination for runners

New Zealand is a fantastic destination for a runcation, racecation, whatever you call it! I arrived about 8 days early, got a great last longer-ish run done in Auckland, and then spent a week enjoying my time and giving myself a chance to recover from travel fatigue. I will be posting more about what I did in New Zealand in the near future. But eventually I arrived in Rotorua, the town where the Tarawera Ultra was to take place. It’s a cute town with a million restaurants, a lakefront area, forests, and lots of geothermal parks and sites to see.

  • Advice: Book your accommodation early! Absolutely everything (including AirBnBs) aside from dorm beds in hostels was sold out 3 weeks prior to race day.

Auckland skyline from across the water
Auckland skyline as seen from a morning run

UTMB Mandatory Gear and the race expo:

A new phenomenon for me was the concept of mandatory gear necessary for a race. I guess this is big in UTMB and other mountain/trail races around the world. But it wasn’t just a long sleeve shirt or a hat- it was pretty major stuff: seam-sealed waterproof jacket, thermal (basically merino) top and bottom layers, thermal beanie, etc… all expensive stuff that is bulky to carry. I had most of this from my backpacking adventures, and also got the jacket on clearance at REI by pure luck. Then, you need to have it all checked at race check-in or in advance at a Macpac (like REI) store. I visited Macpac for this check when I arrived in Auckland, and it was a very simple process. Race officials determine close to race day what gear will actually be required based on weather conditions. This year, the TUM50 didn’t even end up requiring anything. Yay!

The race expo was pretty low key, and only had a handful of vendor booths. I checked in on Friday, and was one of the first people there, so it was pretty empty. However, I did get first pick of the UTMB merchandise, which got me very excited. I was nervous about buying things because I was nervous about my ability to finish the race, but I did end up with a few modest souvenirs. 

One of my favorite things was the race bib- each participant had their country’s flag in the upper right hand corner of the bib! It was so fun to see where everyone was from- I believe that 38 countries were represented!

girl holding race bib at tarawera ultra trail expo
Bib pickup at the expo- so excited to be doing this!

Tarawera Ultra: Race morning and starting waves

My race, the TUM50, started at 6am at Te Puia, which is one of the main geothermal parks in Rotorua. I had bought a ticket to ride the shuttle to the race start, but then a friend ended up joining me on this trip and was able to easily drop me off at the start. As it turns out, Rotorua is actually a very small town, and the starting area was very close to the city center (like 2.4 miles). Per usual, there were lots of porta potties, but there were also insane lines for them. I waited at least 20 minutes, and during this wait, the first 2 waves of the race started.

The race used self-selected start waves. However, I chose wrong. I thought that I would finish in 9 hours, maybe 8 if I was having an amazing day. So I picked the last wave, Wave C. However, I didn’t really account for the fact that I’d be running much faster in the first half of the race, and not walking until the second half. So I ended up needing to pass many runners in that wave as soon as the race started, and often getting trapped on single track in lines behind people. I caught up to Wave B runners in less than 30 minutes actually. I would say that crowding was a major problem in the first 7 miles or so of the race, due to the single track. This is common in many races, but not normally for this long.

Geothermal wonders and early crowds

The race started as dawn was breaking and it was super cool to run through Te Puia and see all of the steam rising out the geothermal areas. Free admission to one of the main attractions in Rotorua! Soon we were out of the park and onto trails, and it got wooded relatively quickly. I loved the peacefulness of the forest in the early morning, and just kept thinking how thankful I was that it was a cool (albeit extremely humid) morning. I tripped and fell on some tree roots around mile 4, but thankfully it was on nice soft dirt! The course was pretty rolling; some up, then some down, and this is probably my favorite type of running! The first 7 miles were a bit frustrating trying to jockey through the crowds and find some space on the single track. Something I noticed as an American is that runners in New Zealand pass each other on the right instead of the left! It makes sense, considering that is how they also do it while driving, but it was a little quirk that made me laugh! 

I skipped the first aid station, Puarenga, at 10.7km. It was fairly small and had porta potties, but I wanted to take advantage of the crowds stopping here in order to give myself some more space on the track. From here the course continued it’s rolling path, and took us through some “jungle” areas and by some water, and it was so beautiful! However, you definitely need some agility to navigate the tree roots! There was also a decent hill in this section. It continued to be cool and overcast, and despite feeling really great, I made myself stop and take a few photos so I could share the beauty later on.

geothermal steam rising over rocks at Te Puia, New Zealand
Geothermal steam rising at sunrise in Te Puia

A bit of aid station chaos

At the 22km mark was the Rotokakahi aid station. This was our first of 2 passes at this station, and while it was a larger aid station, it was chaotic. There was a myriad of food: sandwiches, gels, candy of all sorts, brownies(!), etc, as well as water and Naak electrolyte fluid. However, there were no signs or clear designations of what was where, which fluid was which, etc. This led to confusion as well as long lines to refill fluids. There were porta potties here as well (I do love a race that has lots of toilets, which is unusual in ultras!). Between a bathroom stop and getting fluid, it took me more than 10 minutes to get out of this aid station. I will say though, the volunteers at this aid station were champs, working their butts off and majorly hustling to try and accommodate all of the runners! At this point, the 102km runners had caught up to the 50kers, and this single aid station was being used twice in each race, so I think it was overwhelmed.

The next section was a 7.2km loop that would return us to the Rotokakhi aid station. I didn’t notice this while reviewing the race course and it wasn’t well marked, so I just got lucky following the flow of people down the correct path. This was a nice section, dirt roads, fire roads, still very shaded, and much more space between runners. I reminded myself that the sun was starting to come out at this point and that it was going to be warm- the only way for me, a heat intolerant person, to survive this race was going to be a lot of hydration and excellent fueling. I had filled one of my water bottles with Naak electrolyte drink (breaking the "nothing new on race day rule") and I actually liked it. I think it was the watermelon flavor, and also not mixed full strength, but it had a mild flavor that wasn’t too sweet. 

After another chaotic pass through the Rotokakahi aid station, we began a section of fire roads in the sun. The occasional stretches of fire roads were welcome because it was a nice break from worrying about my footing. I had a nice trail of blood down my knee from my earlier fall, and I was desperately hoping to not have a second! I remember that the day was definitely heating up at this point, and I was starting to worry about the potential for sunburn. Thankfully the next aid station was only 6.2km away and I remembered seeing online that there would be sunscreen at the aid stations! 

runner going up a hill in the forest
Lush forests abound in Tarawera

Slowing down and the sun came out

The Lake Tikitapu aid station was at 35.5km, and I was pretty hot and beginning to slow down, so I walked into this one. The lake was very pretty, and there were so many spectators cheering everyone on! So encouraging! This was a large and spacious aid station, and I had a drop bag here. They had a variety of sandwiches (even manuka honey ones, so NZ), baby wipes, and sunscreen! At this point, I was in noooo hurry. I casually did my things, got my second set of gels from my drop bag, and then was like “Okay, I guess I should get going now.” There was a small hill heading out of the aid station, and at the top was apparently the best view of the lake. A super friendly guy had posted up there, volunteering to take a photo of you at this spot with your phone. I obliged. So lovely!

A female runner smiles during a race with a lake behind her
Smiling at the 35km mark!

Exceeding expectations

The next 10.8km stretch to the Redwoods aid station I remember having a few big hills. But I was so proud of myself, because I was still running at this point! Since I wasn’t really well trained, my goal was to make it to mile 20 before walking, and thenI’d probably need to walk continuously to the finish. But no! Even at mile 28, I was still mostly running! Of course I was taking walk breaks here and there throughout the entire race, but I never dreamed I’d still be mostly running at this point. Coming into the Redwoods aid station at 46.3km, I was feeling good and shocked at my time. It was only 12:45pm- I’d told my friend that best case scenario, I’d be done at 2pm. Now I was only 7km from the finish, if I kept going at my current pace, I could be done much sooner!

It was all good until it just wasn't

I ran out of that aid station feeling pretty psyched at how things were going. However, it wasn’t too long before the distance and the heat began to take its toll. This last section was mostly in full sun, and I got tired and warm. Some sections were pretty neat, going through another geothermal area, but it also got a little smelly (sulphur). My walk breaks were more frequent and longer, and each step felt like pounding and tightening around my knees. Too bad this race wasn’t just 50km- I was "good" until then! But the last 3km were a slog to the finish. I resigned to walking for a bit until I passed a sign that said 300m to the finish. Then a couple of girls behind me called out to me, said “hey! let’s go run it in!” and that gave me the strength to pick it up again and run to the finish!

2024 Tarawera Ultra Trail Finisher!

I was so happy to cross the finish line! I was expecting a 9-ish hour finish, but ended up with 7h 18m! I had been low-level nervous during my whole trip to New Zealand, and even until the moment I crossed the finish line, that something would happen and that I would not be able to complete this race. But no- I had such a great day out there, it all worked out, and I am so thankful that God just allowed me to have a wonderful time and enjoy it. 

female runner posing with her medal at the finihs line of an ultramarathon
Finished, happy, smiling

The Verdict

UTMB Tarawera-Ultra Trail is a 10/10 race that is absolutely worth the trip across the world! A spectacular (mostly) shaded course through varied terrain, amazing volunteers, spectators cheering the woods, and good organization makes it an essential bucket list running experience!

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