As I left the 27 kilometre aid station at Buried Village my energy began to wane and I wondered about how I got here. I paused at the Wairere falls and remembered the homesickness I felt a few months ago but then I remembered I was supposed to be running. I could contemplate later but yes, good old fashioned homesickness got me here. In May I was sitting on a sofa in an apartment in Edinburgh feeling homesick. Well, in hindsight I was probably trail sick. After finishing Te Araroa last summer I started missing being outside, the endorphins from a days walking and of course just being in the beautiful NZ bush. Like anyone that’s completed a through walk I was also contemplating my next steps and things that I wanted to accomplish. I was thinking a lot about my bucket list. I wanted to do a marathon as much as I wanted to learn how to fly fish. Just one of the many things I’ve always been curious about but what has often held me back is fear. The fear not knowing what the fuck i’m doing has often been an excellent hand brake. After all marathons are for the elite right? Spiffy lean people with impressive technical gear, strange looking compression socks and unbelievable finishing times. I’ve never had a desire to put myself next to those people, an amateur next to a professional, how terrifying. Yet here I am. Maybe walking Te Araroa gave me an inflated sense of self or maybe I’m just far too curious because I signed up anyway. Sakyong Mipham Riponche once said “Be more curious than afraid” and this has indeed became my mantra.
I signed up to Tarawera marathon after googling New Zealand trail run. It was listed as one of the best and most scenic trail races in the world. I watched a short trailer and started to convince myself that this was the marathon that was meant to do. I slept on it and in the morning I registered and paid the hefty entry fee with the some of the last pennies in my rapidly dwindling funds. The only problem was I had never really run before. Sure I had the occasional jaunt around the block but I was of the opinion that running just feels pretty awful. When I ran I couldn’t breath properly, I felt awkward and jangly and it would hurt my knees but occasionally, every now and then on the right terrain and when I was it the right mood it felt sort of good. There was something very freeing about the experience something that felt so very nature. So to prepare my inexperienced self I did two things. I read the first half of Not your average half marathon by Jill Angie. A good book that gave me some hints about mental preparation but as soon as it got into technical training advise and I saw the words ‘pace’ and ‘cadence’ the book went straight to the charity shop. I didn’t want unfamiliar words and technical jargon scaring me. While it was intended to be helpful I am more of a ‘seek solace in ignorance’ kind of gal. I also decided to heed the advice of a marathon running colleague of mine. A few months ago I was mid complaint about the aforementioned pitfalls of running when he said “Your probably running too fast. You know you can just run really slow right? That way you should be able to breath properly and you’ll last longer”. Well, shit. Now that was the best piece of advice I ever got. Nothing to do with ‘pace’ or ‘cadence’ just plain common sense.
I slowed my pace. I was like a jogging tortoise but it felt better, much better. I started running around Arthur’s seat in Edinburgh walking the steep sections at my own pace. When we got back to wellington I started running to work and training on the trails around the South coast. But even though I had conditioned my body to run I still got very little sleep on the Friday before the marathon. I was nervous. I didn’t feel prepared and attending the registration on Friday night did not help. Inadvertently I had walked into a beacon of exclusivity in the runners world. I snaked my way past the Hoka shoe stand and electrolyte trail drink samples. I noticed the frenzy by the marmot stand for jackets. A last minute addition to the race rules meant that compulsory gear checks were being done for seam sealed jackets. While I appreciated that the organisers were concerned about the weather, which was forecast rain, I couldn’t help but feel there was just another access barrier being put up, an overzealous one at that. Jacket sure. Seam sealed jacket? Hmmm. I’m still not sure of the reasoning behind the organisers decision but the Marmot stand and hefty price tag for those caught out seemed like an all too convenient opportunity to make a sponsor some quick cash. I was simply lucky. I had a seam sealed jacket I had bought for Te Araroa and had happened to see the Facebook post before we left Wellington. The rules were strict. No seam sealed jacket meant immediate disqualification. Surprisingly I was waiting to see a moan on the comments section on the Facebook post but there wasn’t one. What could we do? We had paid our money, we had made our choice.
Just before I made my way to collect my registration number I had to show an official my jacket. He stamped my hand and it was checked by another lady who handed over my registration number and a map. I looked behind me and whispered to my partner Jack “Lets get the fuck out of here!”. It was doing nothing for my nerves. Coincidence has it a mate of mine in Wellington had a sister running. I met Tau just before we left registration. She had signed up to the 50k option but had been unwell and decided to down grade. “Are you starting at 6:30am?” she asks me. 6:30am was the option for “tortoise runners”. A brilliant option if your worried about missing the cut off time. Everybody has to be at Buried Village before 2:30pm. “I was thinking about it” I say. Her mate John did a demo of the average walking pace to met the cut off time of 2:30pm. It was brisk walk and it put me at ease. I decided to start as a tortoise runner and a good thing too as I got very little sleep that night anyway.
We were up at 5am and as I milled around the start line with Jack by Te Puia geyser I tried to enjoy my surroundings. Steaming clouds of white were leaving the rock beds and swirling around us. I sat for a while on the warm rocks near the start line. As the runners gathered I looked around me and my stomach sank. A sea of neoprene, buffs and tiny trail running back packs. I had the awful feeling that I had somehow fooled myself into thinking I belonged here when I did not. I hid to the side of the pack and I listened to the organiser announcements. “Just a warning a Karearea started nesting on the trail yesterday and will possibly try and take a swoop at you”. What? Did I just here that right? A fucking falcons gonna peek my eyes out? Great! But then there was Powhiri a Haka that captivated me followed by a Karakia. As soon as I heard the soft Te Reo I started tearing up. My mind chastised me. Dam it Michelle hold it together! I dunno what it is but every time I hear a beautiful Karakia it just tugs at my heartstrings. There was a countdown but as we got to 1 nobody ran. There were simply too many of us. We all just briskly walked out. Jack high fives me as I pass. I wouldn’t see them for another 27 kilometres where we had arranged to meet at Buried Village.
The first 7 kilometres to the Punga Nice aid station was beautiful. through the geyser field and into a forest surrounded by ponga and pine I took it slow, walking almost every steep incline. The Karearea sure enough was taking a swoop at every runner. Twice at me but it just made me speed up. Poor bird, with 1,600 runners today it was in for a busy day of nest protecting. At one point I passed John in excellent fast walking stride. Something about seeing a familiar face made me calm. As I jogged over my first stream bridge I noticed a photographer. I didn’t know if I was meant to look. I ignored him instead and saw the signs that I was 200 meters away from the aid station. Yes! 7 kilometres down. The aid station was packed with friendly faces and more food than you could shake a stick at. I grabbed a banana and a jet plane and hid to the side pausing to take a photo. There were 3 girls waiting for their mum to come in. In the meantime they were supporting the other runners. “Go random strangers!” was their humorous support chant. I quickly remembered some advise John gave me the day before “Don’t linger around the aid stations. There a real party”. He was right. The food and drink and good vibes was all too tempting. I left jogging forward following the forestry trails. I noticed there was fast walker whose speed was about my average jogging pace before a blast of elite runners ran by in a hurry. A flash of lean sinewy muscle was all it took to notify me it had been just over an hour since I started. I looked at my watch 7:46am. It was the 7:30am pack coming through. It took them just over 15 minutes to get here. Jesus they were fast. The next aid station came up quick “WELCOME TO PONDYYYY!!!” one lady shouts at each pack of runners coming in. Dressed in Hawaiian garb with music blaring this made me smile. I helped myself to potato chips and filled my pump bottle with some electrolyte drink but 2 kilometres later I tip it out. It tastes like sea water and made me want to puke. It would be a cola at the next station.
I jogged along the forestry trails thinking that there was no need to have worried about my shoes so much. In the weeks leading up to the marathon I stressed endlessly about my footwear. I had been running in road shoes and while the organisers had recommended trail runners I had no time to break in a new pair. I had tried. I shelled out $330 for a pair of asics only to return them to the shoe clinic a week later caked in mud. Thank goodness for that 30 day returns policies. It taught me a good lesson in realising how long it takes to break in shoes. I stuck with my road runners and now I was grateful for my decision. As I passed green lake picnic station I picked up some more jet planes. My back was now covered in sweat and on the long forestry road past green and blue Lake I sort of got bored. I walked a little but then decided to put my head phones in and play some music to keep my mind occupied. Of course thats when every friendly runner showed up and wanted to have a yarn. There was lots of “hellos” and “hows it goings?”. I was surprised at how chatty everyone was. As I entered the forest again I had to stop and retie my laces. My feet had moved around a lot on the terrain and I began to feel the all too familiar feeling of blisters developing under my big toes. As I walked the steep ascent back up to the green lake picnic area there were shouts from the spectators. “Go ladies”. I got more jet planes and this time pretzels and coke. Sweet delicious caramel coke. I knocked it back and for the next 7 kilometres enjoyed the sugar rush. Through native bush and pine forest I then hit the road into Buried Village. Just like road walking on the TA it was fucking awful.
One of the reasons why I picked a trail run was because road running does nothing for my knees. I could feel the joint of my right knee flare on the impact. I notice the runner in front of me pull over and ask the official if they had a band aid “At the aid station in 1 kilometre” was the reply. They limp run off like a bullet and I limp slowly behind them. 1 kilometre to go and I get to see Jack and my mum who was joining us for the day. Some support was needed. Jack also had my Powerade and I knew there were scones at this aid station. I lick my lips in anticipation. Rounding the bend to Buried Village Jack and Mum spot me and they clap me in looking almost surprised to see me. “Here sit down” they say. I look at the chair and know it is a bad idea. I had felt my hips and my legs become heavier in last few kilometres. “I think i’ll seize up”. I fill my camelback get Jack to fill my pump bottle with Powerade and I pause for a scone and a coffee posing next to the ‘scone running’ sign. Exactly what I needed but I knew I had to move it. I had finite energy left and 27 kilometres had so far been my longest run ever. Yup thats right. While I had trained as much as I could. Who the hell has time for 3-5 hour runs?? I was hoping the environment would spur me through and so far it had. “Don’t worry you only have 15 kilometres to go!” Jack says. “That seems like a lot” I reply but I know I just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. “Ok I gotta go” and off I went towards the finish line.
I wasn’t expecting the trail to get more technical after Buried Village but indeed it did. The trail directed us across a hot water stream with another photographer waiting for us. “Just be careful its slippery”. I cautiously make my way across and work through the roughly cut bush. As I climb up the valley then descend the other side slips off the trail are obvious and there was no lingering or looking down for anybody. We simply skirted the slips and hoped the earth wouldn’t crumble underneath us. One lady in front of me made a distinct gasp as she looked at the slip beside us before taking off like a rocket. The trail was becoming increasingly narrow and when I heard distinct huffing and puffing behind me I knew it was time to pull over and let runners pass. There were some beautiful open parts with beech trees that smelt divine but the runners breathing down my neck meant I had to keep bailing off the trail into the moss. It was always so quiet once they passed and I enjoyed the lack of pressure to go faster or keep pace with them. I brisk walk up almost every hill. Sweating, grunting and cursing the terrain but then Twin falls aid station appears. I had somehow done 7 kilometres in just over an hour. Very fast for me. The coffee and scone at Buried village had been a good move. The aid station was a lot more chilled out and the Alan parsons project was the background music. More coke, more chippies, more jet planes. Mmmm jelly beans. As I jog on I hear some more huff and puff behind me. “How much gear are you carrying?”. I turn around and notice theres no one else around so that was definitely a question for me “It looks heavy”. He’s a curious German in ultra light gear but because his question makes me feel insecure I’ve already decided he’s an asshole. I decide to be polite. “It’s mostly empty. It’s not heavy” I say. “Oh it looks big” he replies. I’m wearing my osprey day pack the one I’ve always ran with. He runs past me like a gazelle. “Have good run” he says. Jerk.
As I snake up the Tarawera trail I get some views over the lake but for some reason getting to the next aid station at Wairoa feels like forever. Its only 4 kilometres but it just doesn’t appear when I think it will. My dam scone has worn off! I reach into my stock pile of jet planes and start chewing. I notice most of the runners I am grouped with now aren’t marathoners but 50K’ers. They had run 8 more kilometres and were here with me. They are interesting looking folk with strange compression thingees around there legs and sometimes their arms. Most of the men are either really hairy and beardy or conversely bald. As i’m chewing on another jet plane I chat to a lady that is doing the 50K and she says she is surprised that her legs are still going. “When I saw my husband at Buried Village I said I’ll be crawling the rest but so far I’ve been ok”. Frankly I was surprised my legs were still going too. I guess there is something about an event that just keeps you going. The will to finish, the encouragement from complete strangers, the jet planes. She quickly passes me up hill in her under armour compression sleeves and running skirt. I suddenly want to laugh out loud. We all must look so ridiculous. I jog into Wairoa and finally see the 200 meters to aid station sign. Thank fuck. But theres some other signs too that indicate we will be meeting some zombies. Cobwebs coat the bridge over the stream to the aid station and sure enough zombies are there to serve us coke and chippies. “What can I get you Michelle?”. Oh good their friendly zombies “Coke please!”. Theres two 50 kilometre walkers one of which looks like she’s about to throw a shit fit when one of the zombies tells her theres another hill. It’s the last hill. Its kind of cruel really, a steep son of bitch in the last 3 kilometres to the finish line. Like a row of ants we huff and puff and huff and puff and huff and puff…and then theres a sharp decent. For a kilometre I suddenly see nobody. I have the trail to myself as I jog down hill into the valley toward the lake. In the distance I start hearing cheers and music. Its them! The finish! It makes me go a pace I have never done before. A fast pace thats just enough to not blow out my knees. Theres a staircase and ahead of me there are two runners and two spectators to the side of the trail that shout out to us “400 meters to go!”. I’m beaming, I’m buzzing, I feel amazing. I trot past the Lake and look directly at the last photographer of the day with a grin. I hear my name over the speakers as I jog to the finish line “Heres 4154 Michelle Campbell it’s her first marathon. Keep smiling girl you survived!!”. I cross the finish and someone gives me a high five. A young girl puts a medal over my neck and someone gives me a hug. Right now I am incredibly grateful that I was more curious than afraid.