Okataina-Tarawera: return to the pain cave

Rotorua isn’t just about the Redwoods, there is a whole range of other places to explore. When it comes to off road running the options are huge. When Gene Beveridge and Duncan Morrison let me know they were coming down for a weekend of training, I knew we had to head somewhere good.

Our plan was an out and back run. Starting from the northern end of Lake Okataina, we would run the Eastern Okataina trail to Lake Tarawera, then head east on the Northern Tarawera trail. We would take stock at the end of the lake and make a call about carrying on to Tarawera Falls. I estimated that it would be 35km to the falls; what would turn out to be another classic underestimation.

The route taken runs from the top left, down the side of Okataina, over to Tarawera, along the northern shore, then down to Tarawera Falls. Then turn around and come back.
The route taken runs from the top left, down the side of Okataina, over to Tarawera, along the northern shore, then down to Tarawera Falls. Then turn around and come back.

We started under some light cloud, setting a good clip down the Eastern Okataina. This trail looks to snake the coastline on the map. On closer inspection it has a reasonable amount of up and down, climbing up to a reasonable height above the lake. The trail surface itself is a mixture. Some sections are smooth a gravelly, others covered more densely in leaf litter. In places the underlying rocks are exposed, with some fun little sections to jump across.

Things were warming up by the time we reached Lake Tarawera. We ditched the gloves, arm warmers and hats. All 3 of us were feeling pretty good and keeping the pace up. Some would say much too fast, considering how far we still had to run.

Looking over Tarawera
Looking over Tarawera

One portion of the trail in particular stands out. Lush, green mosses line the trail. Below the soft crust lie a field of small rocks and stones, enough to need some fast footwork, but not too rough nor too slippery to make the running awkward. The gradient also tilts slightly downhill, just asking for some extra speed. The section feels effortless to run, a piece of running paradise.

A moss lined, singletrack wonderland
A moss lined, singletrack wonderland

About halfway along towards the lake outlet, the trail suddenly dives downhill. The canopy rises high over a steep sided valley. The powerful volcanic forces in play in the area are apparent as the trail heads down. The sheer cliff sides look as if they have been wrenched apart by some massive unseen force. The trail crawls over boulder piles and exits through a narrow gap in the hill after running down the length of the tear. The trail looks indistinct and temporary compared to the valley.

We reach the end of the lake energized by the awesome trail. It’s not a hard call to continue onto the falls. Food is running a bit low, but we feel good and the extra kilometers will do our legs good.

The Tarawera outlet bridge
The Tarawera outlet bridge

Standing at the base of Tarawera Falls we pause. The out and back nature of the run means we know exactly how far we have to go. I can feel some heaviness in the legs already, with ITBs grumbling at the lack of recent long runs. The heat of the day seems to amplify the effort that will be required. The quality of the trail to come keeps our spirits up as we regain height beside the falls.

Yes Gene, it is high.
Yes Gene, it is high.

Back along Tarawera all is well. The three of us are running together well, the conversation keeps flowing, and while the pace is lower, it is consistent. The carnage comes on the Eastern Okataina. My legs start to suffer on the hills. I have to drop things to a walk. We’ve hit 35km now and the legs are feeling the lack of long runs. Duncan looks spritely and continues on steadily while I slowly drift backwards. Gene is taking thing a bit more gingerly, but soon also disappears. I check in to the pain cave. My legs are hurting and feeling weak. The focus goes from catching up to just keeping on going. Food gone and water very low, I have to deal with the self inflicted suffering. I take to walking hills, and jogging/shuffling the rest.

At end of the trail comes as a relief. The legs rallied a little and I was able to catch up to Gene. Exiting the trail I would have looked more cripple than runner. Scoffing some food at the car, the pain cave slowly fades out of my mind. As it goes it is replaced with satisfaction and that intensely satisfying feeling of hard earned tired legs. The pain cave, a nice place to visit now and again, but not the sort of place you want to live.

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