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April 2011 Issue
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Going the distance

Photo: Mike Scott, The North Face
In a quest to find out who she is, Lisa Tamati runs insane distances, by Josh Gale


Lisa Tamati has seen emperor penguins in the desert. They watched her as she ran by in the 55-degree heat of Death Valley in eastern California.

“When you’re running one or two nights without sleep and you’re absolutely exhausted, you can get hallucinations,” says the 42-year-old ultra-marathon runner. “I remember in the Libyan Desert, when my kidneys were really in trouble, the rocks were turning into monsters and chasing me. It’s just part of the experience.”

Born and raised in New Plymouth, Tamati was named Maori sports woman of the year in 2008 and has clocked up more than 60,000km, the equivalent of over two and a half times around the globe. Since doing her first ultra marathon 13 years ago, she has run gruelling distances through some of the most inhospitable and downright nasty places on the planet.

She has dodged rattle snakes in Death Valley, escaped from wild dogs in the Jordanian Desert, suffered food poisoning while running through Niger and run 240km through the Sahara Desert.

In 2008, even a raging forest fire at the end of the 217km Bad Water Ultramarathon could not stop Tamati from reaching her goal of becoming the first New Zealand woman to complete the legendary race. “We were running up Mt Whitney and the whole mountain was on fire,” she says. “We were told the race had been cancelled, but I said, ‘I don’t care if there’s a fire or not. I’ve got to get to the finish’.”

Tamati compares “the journey of life” to the long distance nature of ultra marathons. “Life is full of ups and downs and tests. We just have to hang in there for the long haul. That’s what ultra marathon running is all about. It’s a journey to find out who the hell you are and what you’re made of.”

Tamati is composed of a rare steely determination which has allowed her to pass tests many of us would fail. She is an asthmatic and when she was 22 she broke her back while cycling around the South Island. When she and her partner of five years crossed the Libyan Desert together in 1997 the relationship ended, but she kept going. “You’ve just got to push on regardless of what happens to you,” she says.

Tamati’s learned her tough grit from her parents who encouraged sports and outdoor adventure. She trained in gymnastics and as a teen she surfed Taranaki’s breaks, eventually competing at national level. She also held the region’s secondary schools record for shotput and discus. “I learned from a young age you’ve got to push the limits and your body is capable of far more than you think,” says Tamati. “I like to find out where my breaking point is. I’ve reached it a few times and failed.”

Tamati says her lowest point as an extreme endurance athlete was failing to complete the 333km TransNiger Ultramarathon in 2006. On the first day she got severe food poisoning, but rather than quitting she pushed on until the 222km mark of the race. “That failure haunted me for years because I felt I’d set out to do something and I didn’t finish it. You can be too hard on yourself sometimes.”

Her upcoming ultra marathons aren’t getting any easier. When the weather is fine she is training on Mt Taranaki for the North Face 100 in Australia’s Blue Mountains in May this year. Tamati is also training in an altitude simulation tent for what may prove to be her biggest test yet – a 222km non-stop race in the Himalayas on the two highest passes in the world. Then in December this year she might even see more emperor penguins when she competes in the 100km Antarctic Ice Race. But this time she hopes those penguins will be real.