Wandering through the quiet city street of Rotorua in the early hours of the morning, Alex and I were silent in contemplation of the day ahead. Slowly the towns inundation of endurance runners coalesced through the pedestrianised area of Fenton St; its high arches – whale shaped, transporting us through the abyss of its interior like plankton being fed through its belly. Inside, bar workers were busy carrying crates of empty beer bottles out after recently departed Friday nights revellers. Passing us, one of them asked “Are you guys doing the full or the half?” Alex and I looked at each other with a grin on our faces… “the full” we announced unanimously; smiling at the ridiculousness of a 100 km running race been referred to as a half, well so we assumed.

It’s taken me a while to put words to paper… nearly two months ago I run a miler. That’s one hundred and sixty five kilometres (note: yes I know it is actually 161 km but for fun my miler was 165km!). First I felt complete depletion followed by several days of euphoria. Then a wave of extreme tiredness swept over me for 4-5 days. Following that I spent a good three weeks in what I can only describe as post-exhaustion lethargy. I soon learnt it isn’t really just about the 20-36 hours on the day though, but the months following and probably more importantly the 12 months preceding it that make a miler a true adventure (I am not going to call on a cliché and call it life changing). The months following was merely a reminder – perhaps punishment, for the year that was. Finally I feel compelled to write.

My first long distance run (or ultra as they have become known) was 45 km long. That was nearly six years ago and up until that point, I was so far removed from the hidden world of ultra-running (actually running in general) I really had no idea what people were capable of achieving on their own two feet. A 75 km event was also run on the same day as my ultra. Running that far seemed like a complete impossibility – and I have to admit insanity to me. But as I gained experience and exposure my mental limits stared to creep – and my legs were taken along for the ride. I progressed from the initial 45 km to 52 Km and then 60 km; baby steps really. Then I made the giant leap to 100 km (which was actually 105 km) (https://www.timmulliner.com/?p=488). My body was broken, I couldn’t possibly go further and for quite some time I had not the slightest interest or desire to do so. It is said that running a miler is like running two 100 km races back to back. Being completely honest with myself I wasn’t sure I had it in me.

I never thought it was impossible though. If there is one thing I have learnt in my life – without wanting to sound too old and wise – which I am neither, is that very little is impossible if you put your mind to it. Coming up to the end of 2019 I wasn’t quite there but my mind was definitely starting to come around and sub-consciously, a 50 km loop of Tongariro with my friend Alex (we will hear more about him later) in the early hours of New Year day 2020 planted that seed.  

By now I could go for a 5-6 hours run in the hills on Saturday morning, be home for lunch and not be completely useless for the rest of the day – well perhaps a little useless. As the New Year progressed my mind slowly started to get used to the idea of training for and running a hundred miles. As far as events go, in New Zealand you were limited – it seems that running a miler hasn’t quite become main stream yet! Several races made use of multiple loops of a short circuit. To me ultra-running was about a day out in the hills and somehow running round and round a short circuit for an entire day wasn’t overly attractive. Even the iconic and brutal Northburn in Central Otago – a series of three large loops, didn’t appeal too much. The only real option then was the Tarawera, which encompassed a large loop (of sorts) from Rotorua around the bare tops of the volcano Mt. Tarawera. It was also New Zealand’s largest (in terms of participants) miler and combined with 100 km, 50km and 20 km events a pretty iconic weekend on the trail running calender; not to mention it also being part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour and qualification event for some of the world’s most iconic ultra-events.

Alex had done the 100 km at Tarawera in 2020 and therefore was on their ‘spam’ list. In June the email came, it was forwarded to me and my reply was ”Cool… I’d be keen…. BUT – I’m a bit hesitant about forking out so much money for a ‘little’ run! I’ll have to sleep on it…” It took a few days of sleep but during a weak moment one evening I had entered justifying the expense by realising the entry fee was but a mere drop in the bucket when I consider how much I used to spend to maintain my bikes in working order! Alex took a little talking around but he was in too – it was ultimately his fault anyway. There was no escaping it now.

The training was the best part – mostly. Let’s face it, if you don’t enjoy that part, it would be nearly impossible. I had begun racking up the kilometres for a few months already but with entry fee, flights and accommodation booked, the motivation lifted to another level and I focussed on slowly increasing the mileage throughout the winter months.

I had a vague training plan of two long runs a week (a long run been defined as 3 hours +) with 2-3 1.5 – 2.5 hours interspersed in between with a longer monthly run (been defined as anything over the classic marathon distance of 42 km with increasingly longer jaunts up to 100km). My training vaguely cycled over a monthly period with week’s 1-2 building ks culminating in my long month run and biggest mileage in week 3. This was followed by an easy recovery week where I only ran several times; generally attempting to get my body back to a point ready for another 3 weeks of thrashing. The training regime wasn’t set in stone but was flexible around work and family commitments and how I was feeling. It was a method I had used well over the years. Late in the piece (when my body was starting to break down) my physio asked to see my training log and was incredulous when I told her I didn’t have one. The biggest change I made to my training was notching back the pace. I was weary of injury and figured it was more about time on my feet than actual speed.

Notable training runs included a solo 45 km Mt. Oxford, Wharfedale loop; a 50 km exploration run up into the North Branch of the Ashburton River with Alex and Scott which involved wadding through the frigid mid-winter waist deep waters constantly for about 20km – one of my poles remains lost in that valley somewhere if you want to go find it; the Heights of Winter 6 hour mid-winter (unfortunately shorted from its usual 12 hour due to Covid); a two day 100 km + expedition around the St. James returning along the Libretto Range with Alex, a 50 km jaunt up to Devilskin Saddle in the Lewis Pass area with Tony; a 40km night run up Mt. Herbert and along the Crater Rim walkway with Alex; and the 55 km Abel Tasman after having spent five days walking it in the other direction with the family. There were many more shorter runs in Fiordland, Nelson Lakes National Park, Arthur’s Pass, Craigeburn, Dunedin and pretty much everywhere else we went the whole year, which come to think of it covered pretty much most of the South Island from tip to tail. As the year progressed, I was backing up these runs with shorter 2-3 hours efforts the day after pushing my legs in a state of deep lactic and gaining confidence that I could push my body to keep going when it was sending multiple messages to my brain telling me to stop. Thinking about the variety of the terrain and the incredible places that my training took me, not to mention the incredible running on my back door-step on the volcanic Port Hills and it also being the ‘year of the Covid’, I really have to marvel at how lucky I was, in more ways than one. But I do believe you are a big part of making your own luck, I did vote for Jacinda after-all!

The New Year rolled around again and with only six weeks until miler day I had done everything I could. There are always doubts about preparation. Did I do enough? Could I have done more? However, I knew I left it all out there. Sure, it’s easy to say I could have done a few more 12 hours days, and extra few 50s… but I pushed my body to breaking as it was, and truly felt that extra mile would have tipped me over the edge. I would also probably have had to quit work, or leave the family – or perhaps both.  Neither were particularly attractive options and probably wouldn’t have helped too much considering from November I carried a calf injury nursing it through the final few months of training to the start line. I really couldn’t have done any more. That’s not to say I couldn’t go back and do more next time; my body, now stronger, more hardened, wiser – would potentially cope. But there was probably some truth in a discussion I had with a colleague (who was training for the week-long Godzone adventure race) in that in most endurance events probably 90% on the start line are carrying an injury of some sorts. The training is just too taxing – you have to push yourself to and beyond your comfort zone constantly. That in the essence is the joy of it all.

The Friday was race briefing. All I seem to remember during my nervous haze was that the race director wanted to make sure anyone running the miler was sitting on their bum, and what to do if you peed blood or coca-cola. According to the race doctor, most people would pee blood, but you should probably seek medical advice if your pee was the colour of coca-cola – a sign that your liver wasn’t functioned as it should. Noted!

It was dark at Te Puia, just the steam from the gurgling geothermal pools wafting through the lights surrounding the start line. Milers went about their preparations in their unique own way. Some quietly contemplated the day ahead, some fiddled with their packs and fine-tuned their gear, others hugged loved ones who offered luck and support while others joked with each other. Alex stretched on the side and I headed for the masses to join in the nervous banter. With three minutes to go, the haka was performed before we were sent our way. A circuit around the wide geothermal hazed paths of the reserve spat us out on the Timber Trail before heading us into steep forestry tracks.

It took me some time to find my rhythm. Not really used to running with so many people I struggled with the constant surging, passing and repassing, battling with myself to go my own pace and not to be sucked into someone elses, at least not so early on. I was a little surprised to find people huffing and puffing as the ran past me on steep sharp hills only a few kilometres in. Yes, it was hard to walk after such a short time, but gasping for air only a few kilometres in was surely not a good sign?

It was relief to get to the first aid station after 13km. I barely stopped as I weaved myself up through the forest once more. By the time I got to the second aid station at 22km I had largely found my rhythm and the early morning light was filtering through the forest. It was a nice feeling to pack the headlamp away but a little daunting knowing that I would still be running when I pulled it out later that night and quite possibly would be running with it until dawn a whole 24 hours away. But I didn’t dwell on it and instead enjoyed the single track high above the shores of Blue Lake after a steep rutted descent to it; even surprising myself of my recollection of mountain-biking along the same track nearly 30 years ago as a teenager.

A short miserable road section followed where I tucked in behind two women before arriving in a small bunch at aid station No.3 – the Buried Village at km 31 at 7.30am, three and half hours of running behind us. 31km is a descent trail run but when you have 165 km to do it barely registers. A reasonably sized crowd of spectators greeted us in the now early morning and running into the aid station my eyes caught a fresh scone topped with jam and cream. I stuffed it in (I figured while I can why not) before leaving my small bunch behind while I zig-zagged my way through a short forest walk and some rough pugged grassland that directed me to the trail on the Southern side of Lake Tarawera.

For the first time of the day I was truly alone. With the early morning sun reflecting off the lake and in the shade of the pungas I relished the technical rooty track. It was hard not to get carried away but it was a trail that needed to be attacked a little rather than one to hold back on. So throwing caution to the wind I enjoyed probably the most beautiful hour of the journey. Eventually Alex caught up and we made our way together to Lake Rotomahana where trail ended periodically at the 46 km mark. One marathon and a bit down, three to go! To celebrate while we waited for our boat ride to whisk us to the other side, we were served apple juice in cocktail glasses… now that is what I call ‘aid’!

The next 16 km to Okahu were probably the most miserable of the whole run, with most of it on the road, all of it completely without any shade and the route often visible in a straight line rising up before us. The only saving grace was the first major aid station (for me anyway) at Lake Rerewhakaaitu where I had a bag waiting for me. I waste no time in emptying its contents onto the ground while I feasted on bananas and oranges. The aid station staff hovered around politely asking if we needed anything and while I changed shoes, stuffed my poles in my bag and loaded up on snacks for the trail ahead, some boiling water emerged to fill the packet of my back country meal. Most aid stations had a theme, probably more to entertain the people staffing them than anything. My memory of them is pretty thin but I do seem to remember a bride being present at Rerewhakaaitu who cheered us on as hit the trail (or road in this case) once more.

Spoon in hand I interspersed the next 5 kilometres with forcing spoonsful of Moroccan Lamb down my gullet with short running spurts on the tarmac. It wasn’t easy but I knew my capacity to get proper food inside me was diminishing quickly so I forced the entirety of the meal down throwing the rubbish away at the next aid station. At some point some guy asked me what distance my watch my showing. I gave him a confused look. The majority of runners sported $1000 Garmin type watches that recorded elevation, distance, calories, route and made your breakfast for all I knew. My watch was a hand me down from Tina who purchased it for about $10 several years earlier. It told the time – albeit it was actually an hour slow and I hadn’t quite figured out how to change it. It seemed the boat ride had caused some anxiety among some runners with the distance in the boat not been counted towards the race distance but was notched up on their fancy watches. Sometimes I think it pays to go low tech.

Soon after Okahu, much to the relief of everyone, the trail left the road and headed back into the forest. We still had over 100 km to go (longer than I have even run (bar on one occasion) but looking at the map, the psychological effect of not heading away from Rotorua anymore was rather uplifting.

The next 40 kilometres was a blur. Not because I ran it fast, more that it was a monotonous, lonely hike through undulating forestry roads surrounded by pine trees… and to be fair it was 40 bloody kilometres after running 60 km! The aid station within were true oases and the local iwi staffing them were true down to earth, happy go lucky souls. Playing a cat and mouse game with Alex still, we arrived at the remote Puhipuhi aid station. There was one man and three wahines looking after our needs. The guy suggested to Alex that he could have anything he wanted, even the ladies. In between dunking my head in a paddling pool I suggested they better watch out as I knew his wife. I’m sure he didn’t take offense, but I would not see Alex again until the early hours of the next morning.

Soon after Puhipuhi, or perhaps it was just before (the brain haze was well and truly set in by now) I fell in step with Sarah, a Hamiltonian running her first 100 miler. I hadn’t really ran with anyone else apart from Alex periodically up to this point, finding most people lost in their own thoughts, music or perhaps agony. But Sarah and I chatted away periodically for the rest of the afternoon and into the night, helping each other in a way that only two strangers brought together by circumstance can. In our case it was simply helping each other to move.

The 100 km was passed just before arriving at the Outlet – at 103.7 km, after the most beautiful piece of single track hugging the Tararewa River and its cascading waterfalls and clear waters. I must have been enjoying myself as my time spilt for the section was 6th fastest overall; without giving too much away I did not finish 6th of even close to it. They say running a miler is not like running 60km on top of a 100km, it’s more like running back-to-back 100km runs. I arrived at the Outlet at 13.5 hours… which incidentally pretty much matched my time for the 103 km Ultra Easy two years earlier (albeit with a much harder course). Had I gone out too hard? I had absolutely no idea where I was in the field. For all I knew I could have been 10th or 100th. I did know that the 100 km was where the race generally started in a miler but I felt reasonably good really considering I had been on my feet all day. I didn’t dwell at the Outlet as the wasps were ubiquitous and seeing Sarah leave as I arrived I decided to try and stick with her through the next technical section up and down the shores of Lake Tarawera in the last light of the day.

The track really surprised me and was way more technical than I had expected. Tough sections saw one scrambling and down over twisted masses of roots with narrow ledges one slip away from oblivion. It actually took the mind away from the hurt somewhat and I secretly relished the terrain, glad it wasn’t constantly ‘runnable’ with plenty of excuses to simply walk. We soon started to pick off the back of the 100 km field, giving our support as best we could, but conversation was definitely ebbing as the last of a very long day drew to a close.

We whizzed through the tea-light lit entrance to the Humphries aid station at 111 km but not before I had a quick chat with the scout leader who together with his possie of scouts was settling in for a long night.  Lights were donned just before 8pm just before Sarah and I reached the second short boat ride to the fabled Okataina aid station. Okataina was an important staging post as not only did it signal the end of a long day and the start of a long nights running for me, it was also a major bag drop area and proceeded what was classed as one of the most challenging parts of the course – a steep 450 m vertical grunt upwards and the longest loneliest stretch of the course (16.5 km) until the next aid station at Millar.

I took my time at Okataina. I took a seat, by drop bag was deposited in front in me and I ordered some soup and a cheese toasty. Off came the top, the shoes and the socks and a new set went on. I kissed Sarah goodbye (not literally – my sweat and dirt encrusted face wad not kissable by any means), but I saw her crew and pacer whizz her through the aid station and out onto the trail while I was still trying to transfer my number onto my new shirt. I should have asked for help but in my haze I stupidly kept saying I was OK. I ate half my toasty while watching medics cut off a woman’s blisters next to me. It wasn’t the toasty, but the dryness of the toast got to me in the end and figuring I had better get going pocketed the other half and headed off into the night after probably the only ten minutes I sat down the entire run.

Ten minutes on my butt and a change of clothes revitalised me…. for about two and half minutes. Heading into the toughest bit of the course in the pitch dark of the night it was up, and up, and up. Stupendously steep trails that probably would have required an ice axe for grip if it was wet and maybe a continuous ten thousand step ladder at other times greeted me. I made the dumb mistake of not changing over the battery in my head torch at Okataina and realising that to do so in the bush would have to be done in complete darkness without the aid of another light source I waited for the runner close behind to enlighten the situation before plodding on, up and up. Then down, oh so steeply down, before heading for the heavens again. I was toast and I knew it and although I made good constant progress I could feel the wheels starting to fall off.

Startling multiple wallabies and possums I eventually reached the beautiful lights of Millar aid station sometime around midnight. Several comatose runners lay dozing in the chairs. I staggered up to the buffet and shoved in a cold piece of pizza and left while being encouraged to sit down and join them in their agony. No, I figured if I sit now it would be very hard to get back up. I plodded on into the darkness; I only had 28 kms to go.

Up until Millar I had been on track for a sub-24 hour. I had very scientifically calculated cut-off times at various aid station based on the splits of three people who finished the course just under 24 hours the year before. I had been bang on the cut off times all day but when I left Millar the trail spat me back onto the road once more and descending I figured I would make some fast ‘ish’ ks. But the reality was different. The hammering on the asphalt and the agony on the very tired calves trying to descend soon put paid to that. I knew the sub-24 hour was slipping away but there was very little I could do about it, I was on the last vestiges of energy and drive.

Passing through the quiet roads of the township on the shores of Lake Okareka, sleeping young boys manned the corners, but it wasn’t possible to get lost with reflective ribbon and arrows continuing to litter the course throughout. Upon ascending the shores of Tikitapu (Blue Lake) the sound of loud music and flashing lights at the aid station lured my tired body. But cruelly, the trail headed in the opposite direction and did practically a circumnavigation of the lake before we got there, the music and lights soon lost to the darkness and solitude of the bush. It was only 5 km or there abouts but it took me the best part of the hour to finally arrive – kilometre 149.

Fifteen kilometres to go, virtually nothing, and with only 9 km to the next aid station I felt nearly there. But the trail didn’t comply, or perhaps it was legs, but making our way back into the Redwoods for one final forest stint the trails lurched up to the heavens (well it felt like it) and descended impossibly steep terrain that I could barely walk down. I had chewed through the second battery on my headlamp and it went black – well virtually. Luckily it had a reserve light that emitted a dull glow. It was pathetic but walking (which I had largely been reduced to anyway) I could just make out the reflective tape tied to the trees eventually finding myself at a dance party at the brightly lit Redwood aid station.

I barely stopped at Redwood and with 7 km to go I forced myself back into a run as we weaved our way towards the city centre via the bug infested marshlands, scraping the descending mosquitos from my arms and the smaller pests from my eyes and face. It was hardly a nice finish to the race especially as we once again veered away from the finish line to soak in another two crappy kilometres of bugs. Why? Definitely not to make up the distance; I guess only the organisers know the answer to that… jerks!

Eventually the finishing chute appeared. The area was pretty deserted, I mean it was 5.30 am! I staggered over the line and the announcer came to me congratulating my tired and wrecked body. He asked me if I knew how it worked – the selection of the prized pounamu. To be honest I had hoped one would be thrust around my head and I would left to my own misery. But no. “Take your time selecting your Pounamu; choose carefully; make sure your choice reflects on your journey around Tarawera and based on those reflections choose a Pounamu that you identify with the journey” He was on the microphone and I was lucid enough to understand that whatever I said would be broadcast to the field. On reflection that consisted of no one so it probably didn’t matter, but I let him go with his spiel. Once he was done, I wandered over to the table and pretty much chose the first one I saw – I really didn’t give a shit.

Staggering into the darkened and deserted tents, I passed one mass of blankets, beneath which a miler crouched – probably dead and waiting for burial. It really was more like a war zone than a place of joy. I slumped to the ground, got out my emergency thermals and draped myself in their warmth. I was handed some soup and then draped with blankets myself. The bliss of not moving, but I really hurt… everywhere! One of the volunteers looked after me, asking me how I was and a general one-sided conversation ensued. One in which she asked probing questions and I grunted answers. I’m sure her interest was more medical – to make sure I wasn’t going to drop dead on her, but it was nice to talk to someone to be honest and take my mind off the pain that chilled through my limbs from the tips of my toes to the top of my head.

I checked on the progress of Alex and Tony who were not too far behind – all three of us ended up finishing within an hour and half. Alex slumped himself down beside me on a beanbag and I reluctantly relinquished one of my blankets. The terms “never again” were muttered several times.

When Tony came through he was with his eldest daughter and parents. I have to say that his parents looked reasonably unimpressed with the whole deal. The reality was that they were probably dog tired too having been up half the night with both worry and trying to optimise arrival time to see Tony finish. Tony merely grunted at me something incomprehensible and disappeared outside never to be seen again. Catching up with him the following week he admitted he had made a hasty departure to go and throw up. It’s such a classy act finishing a miler it seems!

In the end, all three of us came in under 27 hours and at the pointy end of the field. Not bad for three old fellas I reckon. It is an old’s man game though, the winner of the 19-29 category finished a few minutes behind me. The brain starts declining at 30, losing about one percentage of our brain cells every year after that. That may explain the advanced age of so many milers. Will I do it again… of course!