A race report from Ambassador Heather McDonald
It’s been a week since I ran the Tikitapu Tiki Tour, a self-supported, alternative TUM 102km ultra.
I finally managed to write some words and, spoiler alert, it became a novel. But if you’re interested in hearing how the day unfolded for me and my friend Caro, read on.
After plotting the course and deciding on the name, we left the rest up to our Colour Queens crew/Race Directors – Leigh, Pelin and Claire – who did superb job of organising the race, complete with formal briefings, kickass race packs, and bibs.
The other complicating factor was ex-tropical cyclone Dovi which was sweeping over the country. It rained on us All. Day. Rain I could handle – it was the humidity that was the killer for me. When we started at 6am it was about 24 degrees with 100% humidity. This Wellingtonian was not built for tropical conditions! 🥵
Starting off slow
Caro and I set off at 6am from the house buoyed by a pre-recorded karakia timatanga from Pelin’s husband Paul. We made our way through streets in the dark to Te Puia. Groups of runners were already gathering in the carpark for their own Not TUM runs.
Reaching the Waipu hub, we lost time trying to figure out how to get onto the Pohaturoa track – signage for walkers was a bit lacking here!
Bagging the Pohaturoa trig (428m) was our first milestone. Here we bumped into Janine Hawkins and crew (another Go Run Girls runner), and she took some awesome jump shots (I’ve learnt the trick is to get your jump shots in early while your legs still work).
At the Redwoods visitor centre it was time for the second bathroom stop of many, and then we were on our way heading up, up, up the Tokorangi Pa track through the Redwoods. We saw loads of other runners, some with homemade bibs too. The humidity was so intense buckets of sweat were dripping down my face. We stopped to strip off our jackets. They wouldn’t go back on until nightfall.
At that point I realised that we were going to have to adjust our time expectations because of the conditions.
Highlights of this very social section were a doggo photo stop (first of many) and running for a bit with the man, the legend, Clive Start through the Redwoods.
Arriving at Tikitapu I was stoked see our three lovely friends dressed in hi vis and tutus at their kickass car boot aid station stocked with Tailwind, lollies, chippies and oranges.
First leg done! 20kms in 3:45.
Tikitapu and Tarawera Trail sweatfest
The great thing about creating a flexible course with legs was we could modify it easily on the day. And we did - many times.
The colour queens were ready to do a bit of running, so we decided to do a 5.5km lap of Tikitapu with them before embarking on the long Tarawera Trail leg.
No sooner had we started out when Pelin tripped and had a heavy fall, landing on the road. Caro and I wanted to stay and help but the others urged us to carry on. After peeling her off the road the others soon caught up to us and we were glad to see nothing was broken - but she did have some impressive bruises and grazing. 🤕
We finished the lap together, pausing briefly to take selfies with a handsome boy called Tintin.
The next aid station stop was quick and we set off towards the Tarawera Trail running beside the road, which was ok until we passed the Green Lake carpark and the path disappeared. I felt a bit uneasy on this 3km road section and did not enjoy throwing myself onto the grass every time a car passed.
When we started out on the Tarawera Trail I thought “right, some sweet trail - this will be fun!”
I was wrong.
The humidity intensified as we trundled along. I started to faaaade 🥵. The sun briefly came out at one point but the heat was even more intense, so I was actually relieved when the rain returned. When I saw a step I decided it was the perfect rest spot and had a wee sit down on the track.
We made a good call to turn around earlier than planned and make up the distance later, so at Hawaiki Bay we had a quick break, took some more jump shots and turned back.
During the climb on the way back it was Caro’s turn to have a low patch.
Then we had to endure several kms on the road before completing the lap of Tikitapu.
Not gonna lie, it was hard yakka. And a total sweatfest. By the end I was feeling exhausted and a bit gutted to see that we hadn’t even reached halfway yet!
46.8kms done in 9 hours 20.
Green Lake and Okareka aka ‘My feet are f**ked’
Our bodies were starting to feel the effects of battling the elements for over nine hours. The next leg was 13kms out and back to Green Lake. Wide forestry roads, so not technical at all, but it did take us to the highest point of the day at 550m.
Caro was struggling with a knee that didn’t like the downhills, while I just wanted to fly down the hills where I could. This leg felt slow but we power hiked the hills and concentrated on Getting It Done. It was a highlight to see our Palmy friend Michelle and her cuzzie crew as we completed the lap of Tikitapu.
It was at this point, 60kms in, that our blisters started to make themselves known. Oh boy.
As Leigh and Claire helped me change my socks (they even washed and dried my feet - legends) I discovered a big, puffy blister on my right heel and more forming on my toes. I did what I could - fresh toe socks, plasters and Gurney Goo - but I knew they were only going to get worse.
We set out towards Lake Okareka on the bush track beside the road, and it became obvious that it was a) starting to get dark in the bush and b) feeling a bit unsafe with tree branches crashing down around us. We made the call to return on the road.
The Lake Okareka Walkway was a lovely flat track through a lakeside bird sanctuary, but by then I was in no mood to enjoy it.
Once we had completed the 10km Okareka section we still had a lap of Tikitapu to do. Cyclone Dovi was also starting to make itself known - the muddy bits were getting more slippery, the rain heavier, the winds stronger, and we came across a massive tree that had fallen across the track since our last lap. This confirmed our decision to forgo the two extra Tikitapu laps we had planned in favour of getting back over the Redwoods earlier and making up the distance on the streets. Bloody good call, that.
Back at the aid station we took some vodka jelly shots (these are now an essential part of my ultra running nutrition plan) to psych us up for the next leg. 🥃🥃
76.5kms done in 14:50.
26kms to go. Give me strength.
Nightmare in the Redwoods
Despite the vodka jellies the mood was pretty sombre. I think we were both daunted by the next section over the Redwoods and how much distance we still had to go. It was 9pm, it was dark and we were heading into the bush in a cyclone. We put our head torches on, took a deep breath and set off into the night.
Not long after we set off Caro let out an excited shriek - there was a wallaby, sitting in the bush to the side of the track staring back at us. Her first wallaby sighting in the wild! 🦘
We were following the TUM course along Pipeline Road, up over Tokorangi Pa and down through the Redwoods. Everything is different in the dark and we had to concentrate on navigation to ensure we stayed on track. Despite this, we still made a wrong turn going up Tokorangi Pa, found ourselves on a MTB track and had to double back (and do MORE climbing, argh).
The glow worms on the climb up to the pa were pretty magical. But it was very obvious that we were very alone up here - we hadn’t seen a soul apart from the wallaby and glow worms.
Cresting the hill, we were relieved to finally be heading down. Caro was ahead of me and slipping on a steep descent when I looked up and saw in the distance two eyes lit up in my head torch. Two eyes attached to a stocky body with four legs and a swinging tail.
I was possibly hallucinating (actually, probably was) but in that instant my weary brain decided that the only logical explanation for the creature was a very, very big cat. An elusive mountain lion, the kind that Eugene from Dirt Church Radio speaks of in hushed tones.
We were being stared down by the Redwoods Panther. And we were going to be its next meal. 😱
It was my turn to let out a shriek. I screamed “IT’S A CAT!!”
But Caro was closer to the beast and could see that it was, in fact, a friendly dog with a wagging tail.
Not my finest moment, I'll admit. 😂🤦♀️
In the next moment, I saw the glow of a head torch and a person appeared behind the dog. A guy with a race bib attached to his leg - aha, it was another runner!
We exchanged hellos with the runner and established that he was doing a NotTUM 100 as well. He seemed a bit lost - he was trying to get to the Redwoods visitor centre but had been going in circles for the last hour. We said that was where we were heading and that he was going the wrong way.
We moved off but Caro and I both stopped and looked at each other thinking the same thing - should we take him with us?
He obviously had the same thought because moments later he reappeared and admitted it was a good idea. We set off together, promising to make sure he got back safely. Our new friend - Scott - told us he’d had a ‘small’ medical incident not long earlier where his pee was pink (umm that is not good!), so I realised the sooner we got him back the better.
The dog was having a ball following us, crashing through the undergrowth and then rejoining the track. I asked Scott what its name was.
“Oh, it’s not my dog” came the reply. “It’s been with me for the last hour but I don’t know whose it is.”
Could this night get even crazier? We had not only a lost runner but a lost dog to guide back to safety.
On we marched through the bush, a merry gang of four.
Happily, our little ‘rescue mission’ had a successful outcome.
Scott ticked over his 100kms just before we reached the visitor centre where he was reunited with his very grateful wife.
The staff at the Treetops Walk took care of the dog, locating its owners quickly thanks to Facebook and finding out he was a one year old springer spaniel called Jake who had gone missing in the Redwoods earlier in the day. They even arranged for Jake to stay with one of the staff until he could be returned the following day. If dogs could talk, Jake would have some unbelievable adventures to tell his family.
And our friends were totally unphased by the fact we had turned up later than expected with a random guy and a dog. After all this drama it was time for some more vodka jellies to steady us for the last push.
87.5kms done in 17:20.
The final push
I’m immensely grateful to Leigh for setting out at midnight to pace us for the final 15kms through the mean streets of Rotorua. This, after a full day of support crewing. Pretty amazing.
By now my heavily blistered feet felt like they were on fire. Every step was like walking on hot coals. My solution was to use my poles to shuffle jog along, something I dubbed the ‘ultra shuffle’. However, I could only go this one speed, so I fell behind Caro who was employing a strategy of bursts of running followed by walking.
This was an incredibly tough leg and the hardest 15kms I’ve ever run (if you can even call that running - it took us two and a half hours).
Tired, in pain, wet and weary from battling the cyclone all day, I went into a dark place.
I knew I could just stop running and it would all be over… but I didn’t want to.
When your body is screaming at you to give up, your mind needs to be louder. Just. Keep. Moving. I was absolutely determined to finish this run, no matter what.
We shuffled closer. Those last few kilometres of clock watching took FOREVER… 100kms… 101kms… 101.1km... 101.2km....
Caro and I eventually arrived at the house just after 2am, my watch clicked over 102kms, we crossed the finish line and we were, finally, DONE.
Our amazing friends had set up a full on finish line party 🥳 - decorations, balloons, music, the works. They helped strip off our soaked clothes and got us into hot showers before our bodies shut down in shock.
Then - it was time for the medal presentation.
They had one more surprise for us. Pelin declared “you don’t have to run a miler to earn a pounamu” and presented us each with a beautiful pounamu tiki.
I was so overwhelmed that if I had any energy left I would have balled my eyes out. This was so special and the perfect conclusion to our epic achievement.
102kms with 2300m elevation in 20 hours 18 mins.
We did it.