Tarawera - An Ultramarathon To Make You Feel At Home

Anabelle Latz / 11.02.2021
Sam Ellis - the new Race Director at the Tarawera Ultramarathon
Sam Ellis - the new Race Director at the Tarawera Ultramarathon / © Tarawera Ultramarathon

Tarawera Ultramarathon will be one of the first major trail running events in the world since all sports meets around the world ground to a halt in early 2020.

Race Director Sam Ellis knows how lucky we are to be in New Zealand.

He took the reins for Race Director 12 months ago from Tim Day, and says the enjoyment and rewards of his role far outweigh the challenges.  

From the pre-race offerings like BBQs and cultural performances, to the 650 volunteers who give up their time for this 36 hour race, and the unassuming beauty of the greater Rotorua region, Ellis said this is an ultramarathon where athletes are made to “feel at home.”

As it features in the Ultra-Trail World Tour, Tarawera Ultramarathon is traditionally a key race for international runners, who can gain points for UTMB and Western States 100.

This week, there will be a much more of a domestic vibe at Te Puia, the start line for the 100 Miler and the 50km races, Firmin Field the 102km race start line, and at Lake Tikitapu (Blue Lake) the start line for the 21km race.

Ellis is hoping the 2500 essentially domestic runners will embrace the whole weekend’s offerings, including the Powhiri (welcome) at Te  Aronui a Rua Marae, Te Puia, on the Friday morning before the race.

“This aspect of Tarawera Ultramarathon really does make it such a unique event.”

The 50km race start for the Tarawera Ultramarathon
      The 50km race start for the Tarawera Ultramarathon

2021 entries reflect a 40% increase in domestic entries, and around 66% of starters will be first-timers. 

“And this is fantastic.”

The 100 Miler runners can expect close to 5400 metres of altitude gain on a journey that entails 59% single track, 22% forest, 2% grass, 8% forest road, and 9% sealed road.

The highlights include running along eight different lakes, the solitude of the Tarawera Forest, a boat ride across Lake Rotomahana, the waterfalls on the Tarawera Falls track, twists and turns on the Eastern Okataina track, running through the archaeological site of Buried Village, the towering redwoods, a steam alongside the trail at Sulphur Point, and finishing at the Lakefront Reserve in downtown Rotorua.

The latter half of the 100 Miler course shares some trails in common with the 102km course.

Along with the expected challenge of COVID-19 protocols to ensure everyone at the event is safe, (encouraging the use of drop bags, having plenty of sanitation at aid stations and communal areas, and providing tracing facilities), at the tail end of January Mother Nature stepped in and added another challenge.  In true Kiwi style it was a landslip onto the track beside Lake Okataina after a series of earthquakes hit the region 20km east of Rotorua – 68 shakes in total with the biggest one measuring 4.9 on the Richter Scale.

The slip is in the final third of the 100 Miler course and the second half of the 102km course, and Ellis has arranged a 500m portage to transport the runners around the dislodged earth and boulders.

“But overall, the course is very similar to last year.”

A top runner featuring and who will be a pleasure to watch is Ruth Croft, who will be toeing the start line of the 102km race.

IRONMAN athlete Carl Read will attempt the 100 Miler for the second year in a row, and after a DNF last year he will be looking for better things.

Managing Director of IRONMAN Group Oceania Dave Beeche will be tying up his laces for his first ever 100 Miler, and Ellis reassured him there’d be plenty of cheers from the sideline to get him through.

As with all iconic events, Tarawera Ultramarathon would not happen without the incredible work of everyone who helps out.

“I’d like to say a huge thank you to the local Iwi, stakeholders and land owners. We have 35 different landowners who make sure it is safe for us to run over their land. And in particular another big thanks to the Department of Conservation, who helped with the recent slip. Without their help, it would have been very difficult.”

In fairness, it’s not all brand new territory for Ellis as he navigates this relatively new role within Tarawera Ultramarathon. He’s been with IRONMAN for four years; in an Operations Manager role for Auckland Marathon and Hawke’s Bay Marathon, venue manager of all North Island IRONMAN events, and his most recent task is putting his name beside the Race Director role for Queenstown Marathon.

Probably not a man with an abundance of spare time, when he gets the opportunity to chill, he uses it wisely.

“I like to play a bit of golf, have a BBQ outside - that’s my go to.”

... but they will have to wait until after his first Tarawera Ultramarathon is complete and wrapped up.

Annabelle with her big brother Nick
Annabelle with her big brother Nick

Annabelle is raising funds through on her first 100 mile run for the music programme at The Champion Centre, which supports children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, extreme prematurity, epilepsy, developmental dyspraxia, Autism Spectrum Disorder and other genetic disorders. You can help support the work they do through her fundraising page here.


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