A geneticist who dreamed of creating a 100-mile race around Rotorua’s stunning lakes and forests, once despised running. Now he’s achieved it, and it’s changed his life, Suzanne McFadden writes.
Every 10km or so, along a track that winds through the forests and around the lakes of Rotorua, they suddenly appear – long banquet tables, dressed in colourful cloth, and laden with a veritable feast of sweet and salty foods.
A whopping six million calories will be burned by the 1350 runners who tackle the Tarawera Ultra this weekend, so each aid station along the ultramarathon routes will appear like a shimmering oasis to the foot weary.
Among the culinary pleasures will be pizza and kumara fries, hot soup, honey sandwiches and jet plane lollies. Tom Igusa, who will be among the first to run a new 100 mile (161km) distance around the volcanic city, dreams of watermelon between each station.
Race organiser Paul Charteris knows from personal experience what it is that the runners crave. A passionate ultramarathoner, he completed the 100km event himself in 2015. And in the first year of the race, 2009, Charteris survived by eating the aid station food in the days leading up to the race – having poured every cent he had into creating the event.
Ten years on, Charteris doesn’t have to dip into the food rations anymore. The guy with a masters degree in animal genetics quit his science job to become a fulltime event organiser, and he’s built the race into a global event that now attracts more overseas runners than Kiwis.
He has no regrets in choosing this route, but says it hasn’t been without its “unexpected twists and turns”. Broke and jobless when he put on the inaugural event, he picked blueberries to help pay the $13,000 race bill. In 2014, the fierce Cyclone Lusi threatened to wreck the race, but Charteris and his race director Tim Day madly shortened and re-routed the course so it could go ahead.
Charteris has openly spoken of his struggle with depression, and how trail running – and this race – have helped him through his darkest days.
“The event industry isn’t easy. From the outside it could look like a great, glamorous role, but it’s genuinely hard work. With events like this, most of the benefit goes to the region,” he says.
“It’s become even more of a difficult beast to manage now, but at the same time, it’s a much richer event. We have a bigger team of volunteers around us, bigger staff, but at the same time the weight of responsibility goes up with each year. The more runners, the greater the expectation. But I love what I do – I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
It’s been quite a journey for a man who once despised running. In 1994, Charteris left his hometown of Kawerau to take up a PhD scholarship studying animal genetics at Colorado State University. Working as a dog geneticist in the northern California town of Davis, he spent his spare time training for triathlons – but hated the running leg.
Embarrassed by consistently being overtaken “by 50 and 60-year-old women”, Charteris headed for the mountains – in nearby Auburn, at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range. The town officially crowned the “Endurance Capital of the World” is home to the Western States 100 – the world’s oldest 100-mile ultrarace.
He fell head over heels for trail running and during his first endurance race, the Double Dipsea, run through San Francisco’s towering redwoods and fog, he had an epiphany: to stage an ultramarathon beneath the redwoods of home, through the Rotorua Lakes district.
Returning home without a job, but with a mission, Charteris created the first Tarawera Ultra race, over 60km and 80km distances – starting in the Whakarewarewa redwoods, and wending its way around spectacular lakes and waterfalls, over menacing rocks and tree roots, by geothermal springs and historic Maori sites. It attracted 67 runners.
The second edition of the race introduced the magical 100km distance the event has since become famous for. By then Charteris was juggling the race organisation with a fulltime job as science communicator with Scion, the Crown research institute for forestry. His salary went straight into the race.
By 2013 there were 450 runners from around the world on the start-line before dawn. Charteris gave up his job the following year to concentrate purely on his company, NZ Trail Runs, which he now owns with Day. That year the event generated $1.7 million in new income for Rotorua. It’s now part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour.
And after nine years of planning, Charteris has finally achieved his dream of staging an 100-mile endurance run, the ultimate test for ultramarathoners. Around 140 seemingly crazy men and women will attempt to finish the anti-clockwise loop that starts and finishes at Rotorua’s Government Gardens, and includes climbing the ridge dome of Mt Tarawera, passing eight stunning lakes and the Buried Village, and crossing Lake Rotomahana, and the buried Pink and White Terraces, in a boat.
“The 100 mile event showcases so much of the area, it’s ridiculous,” he says. “It goes around eight lakes – you’re close enough to dip your fingers into the water.
“We didn’t want an average course for the first year – we wanted something truly inspiring and quite amazing. Putting the course together and getting the permission of land owners and iwi groups has been a huge undertaking for Tim and myself.
“Running the 100km is extreme enough, but the 100 mile is next level. When the locals see these runners coming through the town all hours of Saturday and even into Sunday afternoon, it will really open their eyes to what’s humanly possible.”
Charteris reckons the first runner home could cover the 160km in 15 hours. “It’s the equivalent of running from Queen Street in Auckland, down State Highway One, and finishing halfway between Cambridge and Tirau,” he explains to give the distance some perspective. The Tail-end Charlies may be 38 hours out on the course.
Hoping to be among those in the middle will be Tom Igusa, aiming to finish his first 100-miler in just under 24 hours. The Japanese-born Auckland accountant has completed four 100km ultras since taking up running only four years ago.
A mountaineer in his twenties, it was during an ascent of Aorangi Mt Cook that Igusa suddenly had second thoughts about climbing. “My wife was eight months pregnant, and I realised that on a mountain, I could die, and it was probably quite an irresponsible hobby,” he says. “I thought I should probably do something else.”
Although he’d rarely run further than 10km, he took up ultramarathons. It fits better with family life; even if it means getting up at 3am to train and be home by 7am.
But what has possessed him to want to run roughly four marathons back-to-back (and in rain according to the current forecast)? His reason is simple: “Because I don’t know if I can do it or not.
“The 100km is now doable for me, it’s no longer a challenge. And I enjoy challenging myself, wanting to know if I can achieve it. Based on the mileage I have run, I know that I’ve done everything I could have done; I just need to be comfortable,” he says.
In this year’s Tarawera Ultra – which also includes 62km, 87km, and 102km runs – 60 percent of the 1350-strong field are from offshore.
“It’s incredible. There’s no other running event in New Zealand remotely close to attracting that many international runners,” Charteris says. “And it’s incredible for Rotorua. On average each runner brings three support people with them, and they average a 10-night stay. For many runners, this is the biggest race of their year, or their whole life.”
The Government has recognised the value in attracting international visitors, last year making a $300,000 investment from its Major Events Development Fund into the race to help bolster the inaugural 100-mile event.
A decade into the Tarawera race, it has become all-consuming for Charteris, who has now developed other trail races around the region. Fortunately his partner, Sarah Rosenbaum, is an ultra-runner, who helps to market the events and liaise with the athletes.
So is Charteris happy where the Tarawera event has ended up? “Umm, aww, no,” he says frankly. “Not to sound like I’m bragging, but I thought the race would be bigger than it is now.” He wonders if it has been a victim of its own success.
“It became the biggest ultrarun in New Zealand, and very quickly grew a market for trail ultrarunning here. I’d naively thought it would be the only event out there, but a lot more races popped up around the country.
“What I’m really proud of, though, is that it has developed a community of trail ultrarunners, and an industry of trail events throughout the country and now people have genuine choice. It’s really cool to be a part of that growth.”
And the next 10 years? “I’m hoping Tarawera becomes recognised as one of the world’s iconic 100 mile runs. And even though the foreign entry market is exploding, I’d love for more New Zealanders to say ‘You know what? That might be my one big lifetime challenge’. I’d love to inspire Kiwis, who maybe right now would dread running 5km; give them a dream, maybe change their lives.
“It’s definitely changed mine.”