Published on: 03/20/2023
The Tarawera Ultramarathon held in New Zealand every February is one of the most prestigious trail ultra races in the world circuit. Since 2023, it is part of the UTMB World Series, giving finishers access to enter the lottery for a spot at one of the finals in Chamonix, France. This has led to more elite trail ultra runners eyeing the race for an automatic qualification and to an exciting mix of international athletes traveling there, too.
I was fortunate to be there to hear huge cheers from the crowd as New Zealand’s Daniel Jones won the men’s race in the main event – the TUM102 (1). Not long after, I also crossed paths with multi time champion of ultra races around the world, Hayden Hawks, arriving in second. I was running the TUM102 myself, but would only finish a “spectacular” 12 hours later!
Read on to find out all the details about the Tarawera Ultra Marathon races, as well as an overview of the TUM102 from the point of view of a back-of-the-pack runner.
The Tarawera Trail Running Festival
There’s more to Tarawera than just the 102km event. Four races take place during the second weekend in February, allowing runners of all abilities to get a taste of ultra running. Distances include 21km, 50km, 102km and the Miler – 100 miles through a spectacular course crossing the jungle and visiting eight different lakes in stunning surroundings.
UTMB World Series and IRONMAN Affiliation
As of 2023, the Tarawera races have come under the IRONMAN umbrella and are also part of the UTMB World Series (2). This gives them extra clout in the trail running calendar. Each event provides finishers with running stones that can be used to enter the lottery for the UTMB races in August. Not much has changed in the race organization (although lots did change this year, because of the weather!). However, the running stone system has added interest in the race for international distance runners, especially at elite level.
Additionally, Tarawera’s 102km event is one of the qualification races for legendary American ultra, Western States Endurance Run (3). Finishing in under 17 hours gives access to the lottery system to enter the race. For the elites, being the top 2 men or women earns them a Golden Ticket – automatic entry into the same year’s race.
As an early season event, Tarawera is therefore a great qualifying opportunity for the top races of the year. It also gives elite trail ultra runners peace of mind by booking their spot at the UTMB World Series Finals early on.
History of the Races
Set up by Paul Charteris in 2009, Tarawera ultra was initially part of the Ultra Trail World Tour (which has ceased to exist), with an inaugural race of 85 km in length. Growing throughout the years, the 102km became the main race, crossing the most stunning scenery imaginable in the volcanic region around Rotorua New Zealand.
TUM102 has consistently attracted the world’s top ultra runners. Previous winners include Sage Canaday, Jim Walmsley, Dylan Bowman, Tom Evans, Camille Herron, Ruth Croft, Kelly Wolf and Courtney Dauwalter. The course records are currently held by Tom Evans (8:03:29) and Ruth Croft (9:21:03).
As for the 100-mile Tarawera ultramarathon, Camille Herron set a course record in 2019 (17:20:52), when she returned after her 2017 victory to win at the 102km distance. The men’s record is held by Vladimir Shatrov (15:53:30).
As you can tell from the top times recorded in both 102km and 100-mile distances, the Tarawera ultra races are fast and runnable. Combined with the heat in New Zealand in February, they are actually great preparation races for the likes of Western States in June. They also blend cultural significance, the most stunning scenery imaginable, and an amazingly friendly atmosphere created by the local Maori people and the generous volunteers.
Low elevation and less challenging terrain also make these races a great first time challenge for those new to trails. And they are a good way for athletes to tackle ultra distances for the first time.
Here are some key facts:
- Starts at Firmin Field, Kawerau, about an hour east of Rotorua
- c. 103km with c. 3,000 m of elevation gain (GPX routes indicate anywhere between 2,500 m and 3,100 m)
- Gain 3 running stones and a UTMB 100k index towards UTMB races lottery entries
- Time limit 30 hours
- Finish under 17 hours to qualify for entry into the Western States lottery
- Top 2 men and top 2 women are offered a Western States golden ticket – automatic entry into the race for the current year
- Starts in Rotorua at the Te Puia Geothermal Park
- c. 165 km with 5,470 m of elevation gain
- Gain 4 running stones and a UTMB 100 mile index towards UTMB races lottery entries
- Time limit 36 hours
- Winners are automatically qualified for the UTMB Mont Blanc for the current year
- Starts in Rotorua at the Te Puia Geothermal Park
- c. 51.5 km with 1,572 m of elevation gain
- Gain 2 running stones and a UTMB 50k index towards UTMB races lottery entries
- Time limit 14 hours
- Starts at the Blue Lake (Lake Tikitapu) near Rotorua
- c. 21.8 km with 734 m of elevation gain
- Gain 1 running stone and a UTMB 20k index towards UTMB entries
- Time limit 9 hours
The finish line for all 4 is at the Village Green in Rotorua, also the event hub for the weekend.
Tarawera TUM102 2023 Overview
2023 was an unusual year because of severe weather disruption. Just two weeks before race weekend, the northern part of New Zealand’s North Island was hit by huge rain fall, leading to very serious flooding. It looked like international visitors would struggle when Auckland’s airport was shut following the floods, too.
The weather cleared up for the races, but it was touch and go to the last minute, with Tropical Cyclone Gabrielle announcing its arrival. Luckily, it hit on the Monday night after the races were all done.
Rain led to flooding all along the course, serious landslides, and changes needing to be made at the last minute. Kudos go to the race organizers for changing the TUM102 and Miler courses and creating an efficient bus pick-up system for all the participants to the new start line at Lake Okataina. All the logistics were taken care of spectacularly in only 2-3 days before the races started. We even got brand new GPX files to follow and the event website was completely updated with new maps and timing sheets!
The race experience – TUM102
It was a nervous start jumping on the bus to Lake Okataina, surrounded by people for whom this would be their biggest personal challenge yet. We were to cross a special land that blends local history, Maori culture, amazing scenery, and unique geographic features like sulphur flats continually releasing steam into the air.
Unlike the regular course, where there’s a bit of time to warm up the legs, the new start meant that the longest and steepest climb along the Lake Okataina footpath came at the very beginning. Underfoot conditions were good, however, despite the recent heavy rain. A bit of mud and slippery roots are all part of the ultra experience, after all!
We visited some of the seven lakes in the area, including the scenic Blue and Green lakes (Lake Tikitapu and Lake Rotokakahi). The latter had one of the most fantastic aid stations, at a stunning location above the water and featuring 4 types of pizza. Needless to say, competitors became friends as we tucked in before heading into the rest of the race.
At this point after Green Lake, the amended TUM102 course took us on a loop, where we would join the 50km participants on part of their route. We crossed the magnificent Redwood forest, descending to Rotorua for one of two stops before it would become the finish line.
Then there was a slight lull until reaching Puarenga aid station, a challenge to keep going on flat and easy terrain and boost our average pace. Next, we were back in the jungle, running among New Zealand ferns and heading into the night. I especially enjoyed the unexpected surprise of seeing glow worms once the sun went away, and even spotted a possum!
Finishing late meant I was crossing paths with the Miler competitors as well, ready for an amazing welcome buffet back at the Village Green in Rotorua.
Recap of the Tarawera Ultra Races in 2023
2023 brought big wins for local runners at Tarawera. New Zealand’s Daniel Jones had been training with US star Hayden Haws in advance of the race. The two ran a blistering pace, pushing each other until Jones broke away and won to great acclaim. In third was American Ryan Montgomery, who will join Dan Jones in claiming a Western States golden ticket (Hawks is already in the race).
On the women’s side, it was one of the closest fought ultras! The top 7 female finishers all came in one after another, within half an hour. New Zealander Nancy Jiang grabbed the win, just over one minute ahead of Australia’s Stephanie Auston. Jiang and Auston ran a super fast 100k, only to be followed home 3 minutes later by Spain’s Aroa Sio.
American Zach Miller and Australian Lucy Bartholomew came away with the win in the Miler, qualifying for the big dance in August – the UTMB Mont Blanc. Miller won in his usual fashion, going all out from the start and hanging on with the impressive energy we’ve seen him compete in on the world stage. And it was a joy to see Bartholomew back to her winning ways after a break from high-level competition in recent years.
How to Enter Tarawera Ultra Marathon Races
If you’re excited for next year’s event, keep an eye on the website (4) and join Tarawera’s social media channels to see when registration opens for February 2024. Race weekend tends to be the second one in February, with next year’s dates yet to be announced.
Requirements for entry
There are no pre-requisites for registering in the TUM102 or the shorter trail running events. For the Miler, the organization requires evidence of finishing a 50km trail event or a self-timed run of at least 50km to show you have some experience of ultra running. You can find the details of this here (5).
Getting to Tarawera is the biggest challenge, unless you live in New Zealand! The best option is to fly into Auckland International Airport and take a bus or rent a car and drive to Rotorua (about 2.5 hours away).
As a prime tourist destination, Rotorua has a lot of accommodation available, but be careful as February is also peak tourist season so there may be lots of tour groups around. Te Puia Geothermal Park, the Redwoods and the lakes can get quite busy around this time. We’d recommend getting there at least one week before the race, especially if traveling from a cold climate, to acclimatize to the heat and humidity.
Tarawera trails are less technical and challenging, but you’ll still need good shoes with decent grip for the terrain (especially if it’s muddy). Normally, you’re there in the summer, so expect heat and humidity unless there’s unusual weather, as we had in 2023.
Since the weather is not very fickle and you don’t climb at high altitude or run to very remote areas, the kit requirements are not extensive. However, it’s a good idea to practice carrying a good amount of water on your long runs (at least 1.5 L) and extra food, to get used to a heavier pack. The race pack will feel light in comparison!
Aid stations are frequent and really well stocked. You also get to have 3 drop bags during the TUM102, so you can refill with your preferred nutrition if you need to. So take this into account and bring your favorite gels in your luggage.
Finally, there’s not a lot of vertical gain on the course. So, there is no point in doing too much climbing in your training. However, the climbs are quite steep, as are the descents. Practice descending on steps (there are some really big ones on course!) and maintaining a steady pace on flat terrain. This is a much more runnable race than most trail running events, so train to run rather than power hike.
TUM102 (retrieved on 03/17/2023)
UTMB World Series (retrieved on 03/17/2023)
Western States Endurance Run (retrieved on 03/17/2023)
Tarawera Ultramarathon (retrieved on 03/17/2023)
Tarawera Ultramarathon entry overview (retrieved on 03/17/2023)