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8th February 2024

Community Support Key to 15 Years of Success at Tarawera Ultra-Trail

Community groups throughout Rotorua and the surrounding regions are once again coming together to support Tarawera Ultra-Trail by UTMB as it enters its 15th year of running.

An event of this size – a record number of starters are expected once again in 2024 – can’t succeed without the support of the local community and volunteers.

The 2024 edition will see athletes take to the start line on Saturday 17 February, with a strong network of community groups working behind the scenes to support the event.

Originally an 85km race from Rotorua to Kawerau, the event has developed into a trail running festival, now with four distances and catering to trail runners from around the world.

Mitch Murcott, Tarawera Ultra-Trail Race Director, said that the community groups played a key role in the running of the event.

“The community groups involved in Tarawera Ultra-Trail assist across a range of areas, including checking in athletes, managing aid stations, roaming the forest and assisting athletes across hundreds of kilometres of course and looking after competitors in recovery,” said Murcott. “We’re incredibly thankful for their ongoing support as the event enters its 15th year, with some volunteers having been involved from day one.”

One such group that has been involved with the event since the beginning is a tight-knit team from Kawerau, led by locals Edwina O’Brien and Sue Walker. The core team includes Daryl Simpson, Al Spanhake, Monty McComb, and Mathew O'Brien, who volunteer their time as track clearers, forest roamers, traffic control and much more.

Edwina has been involved with the event since its inception in 2009. She is ingrained in the Kawerau community and has been organising volunteers around the Kawerau and Tarawera Forest section of the course for 15 years.

“My role is to coordinate everybody, work together as a team, and do the best we possibly can do to give the competitors a taste of our backyard as we see it – an absolutely beautiful place to be,” said Edwina. “It's just not me, there’s a core group of about 10 of us. I trust them implicitly after all these years to know exactly what they're doing.”

The original Tarawera Ultramarathon course finished in Kawerau, where Edwina and her team all live. It is a small town of just over 7,000 people, but an incredibly tight-knit community that lives and breathes the event. While the courses have changed over the years, they still incorporate sections of Kawerau and the Tarawera Forest.

“This event is a big deal for us and for the community, it let them see how big the world really is and how other people wanted to see the Tarawera Forest. In our community people had no idea of these crazy people that could run that far, and they're still in awe of them. We're fortunate to be part of such a big event, and now it is an international event,” said Edwina.

“We’ve got a school here in Kawerau, Putauaki School, and they have an ultramarathon day. Mitch (Tarawera Ultra-Trail Race Director) gave us a whole lot of caps from last year that were left over as well as t-shirts and we gave them to the school, and all the kids were decked out in a cap or a t-shirt. At that school we've got a couple of the people that are involved in the aid stations as volunteers and so they talk to the kids about what it's about, and they put on a little mini ultramarathon competition for the kids in the morning around their field. That’s what it’s about.”

Tarawera has always been an event that cares deeply for its athletes and their whānau, and a key part of that are people like Edwina and her team. They have seen thousands of runners tackle the event, overcoming many challenges and adversity along the way. Edwina and those that volunteer year after year are an integral part of the event, working in the depths of the forest, often late into the night, to help get runners through some of the darkest moments of their journey.

“Honestly, the most special part is probably come late afternoon and into the night when we have it all go through us, and you see the people that have truly sacrificed themselves to do a race as big as this on the side of the road crying because they don't think they can get through, and we have what we call our forest roamers, people that know the forest like the back of your hand, and they pick these people up or talk to them on the side of the road and they'll get them to the next stop. Then those crews that are on those stations will get them to the next stop. This is what I love, I love the fact that our locals are locals and they've got that real empathy and that love of the sport, too, that goes, come on, you can do this, let's go, we're going to walk you down the road, whatever it is. Whatever it takes to get these people through,” she said.

“Then we love hearing on the other side when these athletes have crossed the line, and you hear time and time again from the athletes that it's those people out in the dark depth of the forest that got them through.”

In a continuing commitment to the event, each year ahead of Tarawera Edwina and her team spend weeks out in the forest clearing the trails so that come race day they are in the best possible shape for runners.

“It’s quite a big job. We start in January, so we've been out there for the last month, most weekends, clearing the trails. We work really closely with Māori Investments Limited, they're the ones that manage the forest for the shareholders, and we also work closely with the people that utilise the forest to grow the trees,” she said.

“We have a tight little team of handy volunteers, none of us are very young anymore, some of us are a little bit broken, but we drag ourselves out each year because we love to do it. We've got this group of volunteers, of local people, we're only a small group, but we get it done and they love to do it, and I couldn't do it without them. They are what makes our side of the ultramarathon.”

Paul Charteris, who founded the event in 2009, said Edwina and the community of Kawerau are the lifeblood of Tarawera Ultra-Trail.

“When the event was in the early days and getting off the ground it was a Kawerau-based event. It was that Kawerau community that really were the ones to support the event first and really get on board with it,” said Paul. “It’s a Rotorua event now, but in the early days it was very much a Kawerau event. And for a small town, it was pretty big deal to have such an event.

“They are the most loyal volunteers and supporters of the event, and such a crack up that bunch. In the summertime, the Christmas and New Year’s holidays will be spent in the forest clearing tracks, out with chainsaws and that sort of thing. They’re out there just having a jolly good time all day out in the forest making trails so it’s all clear and ready to go for the runners. They really do love being out there,” said Paul.