2014 Tarawera Ultramarathon

Emma has a reputation at Scottish for having an unflappably cheerful outlook on life. So it will surprise no-one to hear that when I asked her for her favourite race she struggled to name one. Because she “loved them all”.

Unlike most every runner on the planet, she loved her first Vosseler. It was a great meeting point for club runners and trail runners.

She loved the Rangitoto-Motutapu Island Dual trail race. Because her grandfather worked on the islands’ restoration trust. It was one of her first trail races and such was her hesitation that he had to ask her twice before she agreed to try it. Running over the technical roots, rocks and stumps she fell over, poked her eye with a flax bush and finished “with the biggest smile and a little bit banged up”. She had learned the “sheer joy and chaos” of trail running.

However, the race we spent the most time discussing was her first ever ultra marathon – Tarawera 2014. She says it felt like a dream – in the middle of a cyclone, with a white dog cheerfully following alongside her for the last 15 kilometres. I believe the dream she is describing is the Wizard of Oz?

Emma turned up to Tarawera not knowing anyone. She sat next to a fellow competitor on the Rotorua-bound bus who told her that people come to this event for the running and stay for the community.

The start line at Tarawera is one of the iconic moments in trail racing in New Zealand. With the sun not yet risen, headlights and glowsticks light up the path through the Redwoods. A kapa haka group thunderously welcomes runners from around the world, and everyone reflects on the story that brought them to this point.

Emma found this “really, really powerful”. An opportunity to reflect on all those stories and channel their importance.

2014 was the year Cyclone Luci swept through Rotorua. It rained and rained and rained. The night before no one knew if the race would proceed. It did go ahead but the course changed significantly. Emma, who had planned to run the 100km race, now lined up for the longer of the two abridged options – 73 kilometres.

This was not the scenic experience that many get on a sunny Tarawera Ultra. Rather, there was mud.

“It was harder that lots of people had expected,” says Emma, but that created a new kinship with the people around.

The enthusiasm and connection at the aid stations shone through. Emma said it was lifting to have someone there offering to help.

But the person who offered to help the most was patient Chris Howard, who waited at Okataina to run the last 20 kilometres with Emma.

The amended course climbed and descended a big hill on its way to Lake Okataina, before turning around and going back over the hill a second time. Faced with repeating that hill many runners dropped out. But for Emma, suddenly united with an excited Chris, “not finishing was not an option”.

“We got to hang out together and it felt like a whole new day”.

Not only did Chris join her and inspire her onwards but, because there was a hill in front of her, there was also a long train of people to follow, run alongside and chase.

And there was her strangest company of all. A white dog that lived at Okataina Hut had such a good time running alongside her and her fellow competitors that it accompanied them all the way to the finish at Lake Okareka. It was later so exhausted that it needed to hitchhike bake home in a van.

Of the finish line; “It was wet, and we were wet”.

“We got it done. It was hard and we were tired but we were doing something really special together.”

Since that first Tarawera Ultra Emma has run another 13 ultramarathons, including returning to Tarawera three more times.

It is her favourite distance because there are so many things that are outside her control.

“In a mile, 5km, 10km there is a lot you can achieve through sheer physical fitness and grit. In ultras, other things outside your control happen and it is how you respond to those things that affect the outcome.”

“I love the mental fortitude it develops and how it spills over into other areas of life.”

Emma will be back to Tarawera again this year to run the 20km race before lining up for a 100km race in San Francisco in May.