Over 2000 participants, including 800 internationals, will compete this year, putting it alongside Ultra-trail Cape Town as the Southern Hemisphere’s leading international trail race.
Set in the mountains and forests surrounding the town of Rotorua, some 220km south-east of Auckland, the region is best known for its geothermal activity and Maori culture.
In the bubbling mud pools of Te Puia’s famous Whakarewarewa Valley, 30m-tall Pohutu Geyser erupts many times daily.
The backdrop for the Tarawera Ultra is spectacular. From lush rainforests to towering waterfalls, rolling hills and near-pristinte lakes, the course passes several places of Maori cultural significance and is a mix of flat, fast running with a few testing punchy hills to provide some local ‘edge’.
“My main focus for this year is the Western States 100 miler in California in June,” explained Sandes. “But I don’t want to race it without a high-quality competitive race early in the year to see where I’m at.
“Last year my racing did not quite go according to plan and ended with my having to drop out of Ultra-trail Cape Town.
"I’m looking to get back onto the front foot mentally. Tarawera and a good local race in South Africa will help to do that and build my confidence ahead of Western States,
“Tarawera is fast and runnable, which will suit my preparation. The pace is sure to be fast on the day with a couple of Coconino Cowboys in the line-up.
"Tim Treriks and Cody Reed are young and fast with Britain’s Harry Jones also a strong contender. Australia’s David Byrne, knows the course well and has been a top five finisher more than once.”
The Coconino Cowboys are a group of talented young Americans based in Grand Canyon country at Flagstaff, Arizona, who are revolutionising trail racing with their fearless brand of hard training and racing. Many of these athletes have strong track pedigrees and their creed is “to push the boundaries of what people thought was possible in trail running”.
Jim Walmsley, who seems to set records almost every time he races, but who was beaten by Sandes in the 2017 Western States, is the leading ‘cowboy’ but fellow founder-members Reed and Treriks are not far behind and will prove strong opposition for Sandes.
“I have good memories of my run in 2016 (Sandes placed third),” reflected Sandes. “It’s great countryside and the local community are so cool and supportive, which always makes a difference. I’ll be doing a couple of running clinics for Salomon in Australia and New Zealand before the race, but that will still give me enough time to get to the race a few days early and get familiar with surroundings.
“My dad passed away shortly after Ultra-trail Cape Town, so I missed some weeks of hard training. But since then I’ve managed some good weeks in January and I’m pretty happy that I have enough miles in my legs. I’m going out to give it my best and hoping for a good result.”