The Ultramarathon: Madness or Meditation?
April 9, 2018
Words: Helene Ravlich/
Photos: Tom Powell
The Tarawera Ultramarathon is a brutal 100 Mile (162km) trail run that is tackled head on by a number of well-prepared athletes each year. Completing an anti-clockwise loop, the event starts and finishes at Government Gardens in the city of Rotorua, New Zealand.
Runners start in the dark on Saturday morning and many will run for 24 or more hours through the beautiful Tarawera terrain. Read on to find out what it takes to prepare mentally and physically for an endurance race of this calibre, powering past seven lakes, forests, waterfalls and some of the most stunning scenery in the world.
Athlete: Hamish JohnstoneHow did you get into running ultramarathons? It’s certainly not something you can just wake up and start doing one day...
When I was younger and competing in Thai boxing I read a book called Ultra Marathon Man. It inspired me and I thought one day, I would love to run those kind of distances and have adventures like that!
Fast forward a number of years and was asked to run the Auckland half marathon for charity. While training I discovered that I love running on the bush trails in the Waitakere ranges. Out of the blue my wife tagged me on a Facebook post for a run called “the Hillary”, which is virtually in my backyard. It was the first ultra I ever ran and I had the Hillary Trail marker tattooed on my arm to commemorate it.
I once could only run 5km whilst training for Thai boxing. When I trained for the Auckland half marathon I struggled with anything above 10km. When I signed up for the Hillary Trail I had a steep learning curve and set about reading everything I could get my hands on to learn about ultra nutrition, about what kind of gear worked, about shoes, training regimes, hydration. Now I think I am a much better runner. I still follow the mantra of listening to what my body tells me, so rest when I need it.What is it you love about the sport?
I love that you really only need a pair of shoes to do it, and you can do it anywhere, anytime. I love that it helps me to become present in the now. My head is so busy and my life can be hectic, but when I run - especially on trail - I come back to the present. It also connects me to nature.
Few other things come close: careening through the bush down a rooty trail with your breathing creating a rhythm and your body in full flight, your mind is focussed only on what is happening at that very moment… it’s magic.
I love getting muddy, getting in nature, crossing streams, climbing hills and mountains. Going to places cars can't go, taking in the epicness of my surroundings. It connects me to my environment but centres me in myself.
I am probably not the best at preparing for races. I have only run three ultras to date, and really only count two of them. For this one I had 11-12 weeks to prepare from no running at all. I needed to train smart, so I signed up with Squad Run (squadrun.co.nz) and they helped provide guidance on what to do and how to do it.
Athlete: Gene TomlinsonHow did you get into running ultramarathons? It’s not something you can just wake up and start doing one day...
Ultrarunning for me was a fairly quick transition. I realised at an uncle’s surprise 50th birthday that I was really really overweight and needed to start running. After six months I reached my goal weight and needed a reason to keep running, so signed up for a trail marathon. I did two of those and after reading a lot of inspirational running books, signed up for my first 100k.How have you evolved as a runner?
I have learned to slow down and enjoy the moment, the things around me. I have also evolved from someone who ran as a means to an end (weight loss) and didn’t enjoy it, into someone who enjoys the act of running for its own sake.
Running for me now is like yoga or meditation, I lose myself in my thoughts and hours can pass and I barely notice. A side effect of this meditative element is I’ve gone from having 26 migraines and two hospitalisations for migraines in 2013 to only six last year.How do you prepare for an ultramarathon?
I try to train sensibly. I try not to worry about injuries obsessively (even though I do), and try to go in knowing that if I can make the start line for 100 miles, then I can make the finish line.
Athlete: Aaron KraakmanHow did you get into running ultramarathons? It’s not something you can just wake up and start doing one day...
I was originally doing events on the bike and a friend of mine was a runner. We entered a duathlon together as a team in 2014 and then I started doing trail runs with him. I did my first running event In 2015, the Tarawera 50km.How have you evolved as a runner?
I think ultra trail running Is 95 per cent mental and 5 per cent physical. Something I often tell myself and others Is "It's not pain, it's just uncomfortable".
I enjoy the community in trail running. Everyone is in it together. Running through sweet, New Zealand trails is also a highlight. What I enjoy most though, is the chance to push through the glass ceiling that we often place over ourselves that stunts our ability to grow and get better. I want to teach my kids that they can do anything they want to do if they put their mind to it.How do you prepare for an ultramarathon?
I spend a lot of time doing CrossFit paired with running. I also train mentally - doing training runs back to back, running when I'm tired and really don't want to… all these things help to prepare for an event like this.
Athlete: Shaun Thompson-GrayHow did you get into running ultramarathons? It’s certainly not something you can just wake up and start doing one day...
The whole sorry saga started with sibling rivalry (doesn't it always?). My sister had run a marathon and was forever needling me at family gatherings. It took over a year of training, but I eventually ran my first (and only) marathon in 2011 and decided that it was way too hard and decided to quit running.
During my search for another sport I inadvertently came across an ultramarathon website. The opening paragraph noted that, "in ultramarathons, not even the elite runners will run an entire race, with the majority of runners walking uphill sections of the course". I thought to myself, 'I can walk', and decided to give this ultra malarkey a go.How have you evolved as a runner?
When I arrived back from my first endurance-style run I was euphoric. It felt like a mini electrical storm happened in my head as my brain reprogrammed itself from a 'you can't do that' attitude to 'what else can I do?', and I decided to find out.
My next endeavour was a 70km excursion (they could no longer be labelled as runs), then a 77km excursion. My first Tarawera 100km followed and then the Taranaki 160km nine months later.There must be an element of enjoyment you get out of running, what is it you love about the sport?
I love the laidback nature of all the participants. I have read that runs that last for over an hour reduce your testosterone, which may explain this phenomenon.How do you prepare for an ultramarathon?
Previously I have done a lot of long slow runs, but this time I thought I would tackle my greatest weakness, which is hills. So, for the last eight months I have been focusing solely on hill work.What’s the best advice you can give someone thinking about running an ultra?
That it Is hard, and that is why we do It. It is very much a mental sport. Everyone Is sore. Everyone Is exhausted. The sense of achieving what you think is impossible is mind blowing!
Athlete: Andrew McDowallHow did you get into running ultramarathons? It’s certainly not something you can just wake up and start doing one day...
My brother-in-law bought me a running book for Christmas many years ago and it had the Kepler Challenge in it. I had run a few marathons up to this point and found the whole concept ridiculous but fascinating. I signed up and ran it that following year.How have you evolved as a runner?
Slowly. Lots of trial and error. I do not have a natural gift and every step forward has been hard earned. After my first marathon 11 years ago a I swore I wasn’t ever going to run that far ever again - far too hard. Nowadays a marathon in training is just another morning run. Same thing with my first ultra - it broke me physically and mentally and I decided ultras were for not for ordinary people like me. It takes huge patience and and discipline to train your mind and body to tolerate - and even enjoy - such long distances, but eventually it does, and the rewards are huge.What is it you love about the sport?
Everyone will say ‘the people, camaraderie, community, stunning landscapes’ and all that is absolutely true, but I believe the personal benefit is enormous. Feeling fit enough to run a marathon any day of the year brings a great enjoyment to life in general - more energy for family, for work, a happier mindset and positive outlook.How do you prepare for an ultra?
Lots of training! I have a coach who has helped enormously with having a structured training plan including the specificity required with each event.What’s the best advice you can give someone thinking about running an ultra?
Patience. Ultras are the long game. With the exception of the gifted few, it will take a long build up period to be ready. Expect setbacks - you always learn more from failure than success.