This year, Tarawera Ultra-Trail by UTMB® will celebrate its 15th year of running, over time growing to become New Zealand's premier trail running event and one of the largest ultra-trail races in the world.
The 2024 event will take place from 17-18 February and is expected to welcome a record number of starters to the trails of Rotorua.
Founded in 2009 as the Tarawera Ultramarathon by Rotorua local Paul Charteris, the race was about creating an experience of connection with land and people – a way to showcase the amazing natural landscapes of Rotorua and bring together people from around the world who share a love for running trails.
The idea of the event was formulated during Paul’s time spent living in northern California, close to the trails that make up the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run course. While out running he would frequently encounter people of all shapes and sizes on the dirt trails, often ending up the same colour as the hills themselves. He was intrigued, and soon began to join these runners during their training sessions, chatting all things trail running.
On his return to New Zealand a few years later, not wanting to go back to his previous line of work while simultaneously realising there were very few trail running events on offer in his home country, Paul decided to start his own event. And so, Tarawera Ultramarathon was born.
“The sport had begun taking off in the US but there were only one or two ultras in New Zealand. I grew up in Kawerau and knew a fair bit of area between there and Rotorua, and so I thought that this would be the perfect location for a trail ultramarathon, running from point to point,” said Paul. “I saw the growth of the sport in the United States and what a great community it was, and I knew that we had some pretty amazing trails and scenery in the Bay of Plenty that would fit the bill.”
Originally an 85km race from Rotorua to Kawerau, Paul's hometown, the event has developed into a trail running festival, now with four distances – 21km, 50km, 102km and 100 miles – and catering to trail runners from around the world.
“I always envisioned that this would be a world class trail ultramarathon, that it would attract runners from all over the world, and that it would be seen as one of the very top races in the world because of the quality of the trails and the scenery. But also the unique features of the Rotorua and Bay of Plenty area, the Māori culture, and the friendly welcoming volunteers, just the whole vibe that it has here. So I kind of had a vision from the start that it would be something special,” he said.
“There's something about the area, and it's hard to put into words,” said Paul. “Tarawera was the birthplace of tourism in New Zealand, this is where the original visitors from all over the world would come to New Zealand, to the Tarawera area for the Pink and White Terraces. But it's also got many hundreds of year history as a birthplace of the Te Arawa people, and for many hundreds of years they've been on those trails. You go out on those trails around Lake Tarawera and in the Tarawera Forest near Kawerau and those areas, they do feel special.”
Much like the people and place of Rotorua, the event is built around the concept of manaaki, a reciprocal sharing of warmth and heart – be that the literal warmth from the earth, or the welcoming and hospitality of the runners, volunteers, event crew and community.
“Rotorua has a 150-year history of welcoming people to the area from all over the world, so there's an ingrained, inbuilt sense of hospitality, of manaakitanga, of welcoming our visitors from all over the world and cherishing them being here and sharing our lands with them,” he said.
It’s this warm, friendly and laidback atmosphere that led to the event being aptly nicknamed ‘The Big Friendly’ by Tim Day, himself an integral part of Tarawera since 2014, first as Race Director and more recently as Course Director.
“For me the personality of the event is all about manaakitanga, which is love and welcoming and hosting and looking after people really well. It’s probably a Kiwi hospitality thing, but I think in Rotorua itself there’s another very significant layer, a cultural layer and the manaakitanga,” said Tim.
“I hope that when people leave Tarawera they don’t leave with just a medal, or having done a run, I hope they leave with a feeling that they can achieve anything and that somehow their heart grew a bit bigger,” he said.
Also central to the character of the event are Kerry Suter and Ali Pottinger. For the last 15 years, Tarawera has been as much a part of Kerry and Ali's life as they have been a part of the event. From Kerry winning the first two editions of this race, to the both of them and their coaching community Squadrun supporting hundreds of runners on their Tarawera journeys, to having called thousands of runners across the finish line, they are the epitome of what it means to be part of the Tarawera whānau.
Both Kerry and Ali have witnessed the growth of event over the years and help foster the camaraderie amongst the Tarawera community.
“The 15th Tarawera will be the biggest and best yet,” said Kerry. “Each year it goes from strength to strength, and we welcome runners from all around the world and we’ll show them a little special part of New Zealand and some things that are typical Kiwiana. We will host like we’ve never hosted before and celebrate like we’ve never celebrated before.
“For 15 years it’s been the battleground, whether it was won or lost, it’s been where memories have been made and so many people have worked for so many years to achieve so much. It’s so special for a lot of people, for their running history, for their family that have taken part, just to participate in the event or be associated in some way, and in the 15 years we’ve kept the heart of the event, all the good things that are about it, there’s so much aroha still,” he said.
“Tarawera is special because it’s the event where everyone from our trail running community gets together each year, hopefully it’s sunshine, it’s vibrant aid stations, it’s big smiles, it’s welcoming new people into our Tarawera whānau,” adds Ali. “We always say that once you’ve come and done an event you become part of the Tarawera whānau. It’s a bit of a celebration really, it’s a funny old trail running family gathering.”
Throughout its 15 years, Tarawera has grown and evolved, all while keeping its core values of caring for the land, people and community at heart.
For its 15th year, the event has rebranded to Tarawera Ultra-Trail by UTMB and launched a refreshed look that reflects the event it has become and the community it represents. The new brand and identity were created in consultation with many stakeholders including local iwi.
“Our tohu, or our logo, represents Tarawera,” said Mitch Murcott, Tarawera Ultra-Trail Race Director. “A tara is a ray, or the sharp tip of a pounamu spear. Wera is warmth, a release of heat like the eruption of a volcano or the steam rising from the earth. Together, Tarawera represents the release of heat, the reciprocal sharing of warmth of our community and our event together to achieve something extraordinary.
“While the event has grown, Tarawera was and still is all about the land, people, and connections. The warm energy of the land connects the community, bringing people in from all walks of life to experience trails full of manaaki,” he said.
“We can’t wait to reunite our trail community in Rotorua for the 15th year of Tarawera. This event holds a special place in the hearts of many people, and we’re excited to add another chapter to it this year.”