Kiwi Vajin Armstrong has run the Vibram Tarawera Ultramarathon three straight years… and has two seconds and a third to show for it. In this interview, Vajin talks us through this weekend’s race course and what kinds of times we can expect to see guys run it in, what brings him back for his fourth time at this race, and some of his background with running and ultrarunning.
For more on who else is racing this weekend, read our preview article.
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Vajin Armstrong Pre-2014 Vibram Tarawera Ultramarathon Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Vajin Armstrong before the 2014 Tarawera Ultramarathon. How are you doing?
Vajin Armstrong: I’m good, very good.
iRunFar: It’s your fourth time here to Tarawera.
Armstrong: Yes, it is.
iRunFar: Three podiums?
iRunFar: Has it been three years in a row that you’ve been here doing this?
Armstrong: Yes, I got a couple of seconds and then last year obviously the field got a lot deeper and I sat third, but since it’s gotten much deeper again this year it’s a big challenge to step up and try and get on that podium again.
iRunFar: Last year you might not have trained specifically for this race maybe. Are you totally dialed in for this year? Has it been even more of a focus?
Armstrong: Yes, especially now that it’s part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour and you’ve got so many good guys coming over. It’s such a good chance to race guys on my home turf. I don’t have to travel so much; I’m still in my same time zone. It’s been summer here, so I’m used to the heat—although it doesn’t look like it’s going to be that hot. Yeah, it’s really good. Most of the time when I’m racing guys like Sage [Canaday] and a lot of the international guys, I’m the one who has to travel. It’s nice for the shoe to be on the other foot.
iRunFar: You know the course really well.
Armstrong: Yeah, so last year obviously we didn’t run the original course. I’m really looking forwards to running back on the standard course. It just gives me a sense of my progress. Running that course twice now, I know I can go a lot faster, so hopefully this will be a year I can lay down a good time out there.
iRunFar: How does this… folks from around the world were really watching Tarawera last year. How does this course compare to last year. Is it a little faster maybe?
Armstrong: It’s a lot faster—maybe an hour faster. With the times the guys were running last year, with Sage and Timothy [Olson], I’d say they’d be under eight hours on the original course. So this year, if I can get 8:15 or something like that would be… I ran 8:42 on the original course, so yeah, if I can get down close to eight hours that would be good.
iRunFar: So there’s a lot of mix of singletrack, and there’s some forest road late in the race.
Armstrong: Yeah, so in the last 40k, you’re going to have to be able to… if you can’t hold on to 4:00/k pace, you’re going to be losing a lot of time. I know Mike Aish and Sage and those sort of guys, for them that should feel pretty comfortable on that sort of terrain. It’s really nice running through that last 40k.
iRunFar: You’ve had success on that. You’ve won American River 50, correct?
iRunFar: So it’s a reverse American River?
Armstrong: Yeah, you’ve got all your tough stuff—I mean the kind of section between Lake Okataina and Tarawera Falls which is about 20 to 25k—that’s kind of coming in the middle of the race that takes you through to the 60k point. That’s probably the most technical section of the race. So by that point when you come out on those forestry roads, you’re actually relatively happy to be running on those forestry roads because you can just buckle down and know, Okay, I just need to buckle down and work hard all the way to the finish. You don’t need to look at your feet or anything like that.
iRunFar: So what brings you back to this race?
Armstrong: Obviously, the competition is the big draw card. When you’ve got guys like Mike Wardian and Sage and even Mike Aish, it’s great to have a chance to race them. That’s a really big draw card. I love the atmosphere of this race. It’s uniquely Kiwi. Paul [Charteris] does a great job of pulling in some different elements like today with the media day here in Marae, the traditional Maori area, and the geysers and the hot pools and stuff. It’s got a lot of character to it, and Paul really plays that up and does a good job of making it different. It’s not just any other big race around the world.
iRunFar: So there’s that special Kiwi element and you get to race, like you said, Mike Aish. Did you know of him when he was running in the Olympics?
Armstrong: Oh yeah, of course. He’s always been a controversial figure. He ran at the Olympics twice. He bummed a few hits on Athletics New Zealand and things like that, but I always had his back. I always thought he was a good man, and he worked really hard. To be running 27-minute 10k’s wherever you are in the world is incredible, but to do it coming from New Zealand where we don’t have a strong track scene in New Zealand, so he was having to travel a lot and race overseas a lot. He did amazingly well. He gave hope to a lot of New Zealand guys, Okay, it still is possible to be running those sort of times. So now that he’s stepped up and running ultras, it’s like, Awesome. Now I can have a crack at the guy. At 10k it wouldn’t even be a competition. The thing I’ve got on my side is I’ve got a lot more experience than him at racing ultras, but he’s got plenty of running experience. So yeah, it’s going to be interesting. It’s going to be fun. This is round one. Round two is going to be Western States, so we’re both lining up there. It’s kind of fun. At the end of the day, no one really cares in the world who the top Kiwi is, but amongst the Kiwi guys, this is a bit of friendly rivalry.
iRunFar: For sure. So you said you have a lot of ultrarunning experience. When did you get into running and ultrarunning?
Armstrong: I started running seriously around the year 2000, so I was 20 at that time. I started off doing shorter stuff, doing a bit of track racing and stuff like that. It just naturally progressed up. So 2009 I ran my first ultra. Last few years, I’ve gotten to race a lot. I’ve been probably one of the more committed guys globally. I’ve been traveling a lot. Last year, I was over in Europe for three months and getting over to Australia this year and to Europe and to the States for five months.
iRunFar: You raced in the States a couple of times?
Armstrong: Yeah, I’ve done White River, I’ve done American River, and this year I’m coming back again for White River to have another go at that one.
iRunFar: Nice. Well, best of luck out there this weekend and great seeing you.
Armstrong: Thank you very much.
iRunFar: Bonus question for you—you’re super nice. How the heck are Kiwis so nice?
Armstrong: I don’t know. I think maybe because we’re so far away from everyone else in the world. If we’re not nice here, it would be pretty lonely out there. The nature here—we have no poisonous animals. We have no dangerous animals. You could just get out and wander through the bush for weeks and you’re not going to find anything worse than a possum out there. It’s kind of… nature here has kind of a softness to it, and the people here have a real genuine softness and niceness to them, I think.
iRunFar: Well, all of us from outside New Zealand are so happy to be here.
Armstrong: Great. Thanks.