Drama unfolds at Vibram Tarawera Ultramarathon

TrailRunMag 19.03.2012

Billed as the most competitive ultra marathon trail run in New Zealand’s history, the Vibram Tarawera ultra lived up to the hype and delivered its fair share of drama on the weekend.

Now in its fourth year, the race is a 60, 85 or 100km long offroad run from Rotorua to Kawerau. Each year the field grows larger with 299 starters this year.

Hiroki Ishikawa (Japan) 5th place in 100k, Daniel Scarberry (USA) winner of 85km run, Vajin Armstrong (NZL) 2nd place in 100k and Mick Donges (Aus), winner of 100km.

163 competitors started the 100k race with finishing numbers proving the Tarawera as a tough course, as upset stomachs, technical trails and the unrelenting distance took their toll.

Pre-race chatter focused on the anticipated battle up front. Martin Lukes had just come off a win at the Bedrock 50k, Vajin Armstrong looked to go one better on his 2012 result while two of the top Australian runners, David Eadie and Mick Donges, promised to turn the event into a trans-Tasman battle.

However the standout performance of the event came from the women’s field. Canadian mountain runner Nicola Gildersleeve won in an impressive time of 10hr 26min taking over an hour off Fleur Bromley’s course record set in 2010. Aucklanders Amy Campbell and Vicky Plaistowe were second and third in 11hr 18min and 11hr 24min, respectively.

Running with the lead pack was a tall lanky runner that none of the local pundits had picked.Daniel Scarberry from San Francisco ended up easily winning the 85km run in a time of 7hr 47min, taking 13 minutes off the course record. Jeremy Moody took second in 8hr 36min while Australia’s Sarah Carpenter was third in 9hr 20min. Carpenter took an astounding one hour and 40 minutes off the women’s course record.

Team New Balance Hamilton Flyers won the relay division for the fourth year in a row with a time of 6hr 16min, breaking their previous record by two minutes. Kerry Suter and Phil Murray set fastest-ever times for the first and fourth relay legs. They were followed closely by Team Forest Gump Appreciation Society in 6hr 22min and Team Lake City Hurricanes in 6hr 38min.

The 60km run saw the first ever photo-finish between two athletes. James Kuegler from the Vibram ultra distance team battled 2010 Ultraman World Champion Mike Le Roux from Cairns, Australia. Kuegler would overtake Le Roux on the technical sections only to get reeled in on the more open parts of the course. After the 55km mark, the two athletes decided to finish together in a time of 5hr 39min, mirroring the famous TNF100 (Australia) finish of Stu Gibson and Andy Lee in 2010. Local favourite Diane Bulled took out the women’s win in 7hr 16min, half an hour ahead of Jo Bannister.

But to the main game, and 127 runners finished the 100km distance. The swiftest among them was new Salomon Trail Team member Mick Donges from New South Wales in 8hr 51min closely followed by Vajin Armstrong in 9hr 01min. The decisive move came at The Outlet Aid station where Armstrong and Donges sat down to stock up on Hammergels and Heed and to remove stones from their shoes (several sections of the trail were flooded in 2012 due to heavy summer rains). Donges could not see where Armstrong sat down, and assumed he had left and so and began sprinting down the trail. Meanwhile, Armstrong looked up from his feet to see Donges had gone and began the chase. The two runners remained almost within sight on the open stretches through the Tarawera forest.

Mick Donges wins the 2012 Vibram Tarawera Ultramarathon

Martin Lukes cramped badly only 4km from the start line and spent more than 20 minutes massaging and stretching his quads back into life. Frustrated he started walking back to the start and was greeted by the second-to-last runner of the day. Seeing Lukes walking, he said “If you can walk back to the start, you can walk in the direction of the finish”. Lukes took the advice to heart and began to walk, jog and then run. By the time he hit the marathon point he’d passed more than 260 other runners and lay in 16th place overall. At 70km he’d moved into fourth place and would overtake Hiroki Ishikawa for an unbelievable third place finish in 9hr 20min. Australia’s David Eadie was only 12 seconds behind Lukes.

127 runners would go on to the finish the 100k distance, 82 would finish the 85km run while 100 finished the 60km run. Many runners ran longer than they ever had in their lives.

With it’s obvious popularity and ability to attract large numbers of athletes from all corners of the globe it seems likely the Vibram Tarawera Ultra will become a firm fixture on the world trail ultra running circuit.


Check in to the latest edition of Trail Run Mag, free to download, for an interview with Tarawera winner Mick Donges, plus plenty more trail goodness. www.trailrunmag.com/zine 

Images above courtesy Paul Petch/Outdoor Photography (NZ) and the Vibram Tarawera Ultramarathon