"A strong, endearing and very personal account of one woman’s growth into extreme sports athleticism. There are even a few tips for those crazy enough to follow." Australian Bookseller & Publisher Magazine
Running Hotby Lisa Tamati, Nicola McCloy
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The Badwater Ultramarathon through California's Death Valley is one of the world's toughest races. Lisa Tamati was the first New Zealand woman to compete in the race alongside such legends of the sport as Dean Karnazes and David Goggins. But Lisa's story is so much more than that one race. At the age of 19 she suffered a crippling back injury and was told she should give up running. She took that as a challenge and, with her Austrian boyfriend, went on to run, walk, bike, and paddle her way across thousands of miles of Europe, Scandinavia, and Africa before taking on the ultimate challenge—an unassisted crossing of the Libyan Desert. What happened in that desert would change the course of Lisa's life and instill in her a love of desert running. Running Hot is a story of a life lived to the max—a story of challenges, setbacks, heartbreaks, and triumph.
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By Lisa Tamati Nicola McCloy
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2009 Lisa Tamati and Nicola McCloy
All rights reserved.
GROWING UP IN TARANAKI
Be constantly in search of knowledge
When I was born, Mum and Dad lived in New Plymouth in a wee one bedroom house. Dad was working as a printer and Mum worked as a teacher. Not long after I came along, they built a house out in a rural area near Bell Block. Around that time, Dad decided he'd had enough of the printing industry and joined the Fire Service — it seems that a dislike of the nine-to-five life runs in the family.
I was two when my brother Dawson was born. Eighteen months after Dawson was born, Mitchell came along and rounded out our family. Life on the farmlet was pretty cool but always really busy. There were always chooks to feed and animals to look after.
One of the main things that shaped my childhood was that I had severe asthma from the age of about two. We lived about 15 kilometres out of town, we didn't have any neighbours and Dad was in the fire brigade working 24 hours on and 24 hours off, so it was pretty full on whenever I had a bad asthma attack. Mum would always have to arrange my auntie Peggy or grandmother to come and look after the boys before racing me into the hospital in New Plymouth. When we got there, I'd get put in a Ventolin tent until I came right. Mum was always right by my side the whole time. I believe that's why my relationship with my mum is as close as it is today.
I just remember the attacks being terrifying, I couldn't breathe and I didn't know why. Right throughout my childhood I had to fight with asthma to achieve what I wanted. I never really considered it as a disability; it was just something I had to work around.
The one thing that did stay with me because of the asthma was that I was really fearful of dying and I was a bit more dependent on Mum and Dad than a lot of other kids might be. I didn't like being away from home much because I was scared that if I stayed at someone else's house they wouldn't know what to do if I had an asthma attack. The only person I knew could deal with it apart from Mum and Dad was Nana so I was always happy going to her place.
Thankfully though, Mum and Dad didn't wrap me up in cotton wool because of the asthma. They decided the best way for it to be treated was learning to swim, which helped me with breathing control and upper body strength, and being as active as possible.
I never felt like I was expected to be slower or less robust than the others because of my asthma — I just always did my best to keep up with everyone else. When I was about three, Mum took me to creative dancing classes — that's the first organised class I can remember going to. Me and all the other little kids would flit around pretending to be fairies and have a great time. I absolutely loved it!
Our place was close to the beach so, even if it was raining, Mum would take us down there for a bit of a run around. We all absolutely loved the beach. My two cousins, Kim and Victoria, were a similar age to me so I spent heaps of time hanging out with them when I was a kid.
There was plenty of sibling rivalry between me and Dawson. We used to fight all the time and I absolutely doted on Mitchell. He was my wee baby when I was a kid. I think it was partly because he was quite sick. I used to do whatever I could to protect him from everything.
Getting out and being active was always a part of our family life. Mum was a keen swimmer and skier when she was growing up and Dad was really into his rugby and he was a great player — he made rep teams for both Taranaki and Wanganui. Dad wanted me to be an All Black — it didn't matter that girls didn't play rugby back then. (I think I was born too early!) He always said that to represent your country was the ultimate achievement in sport. He instilled that belief in all of us kids and he pushed us hard to achieve that goal.
Dad played first grade rugby until he was 45 and then he only quit because people kept telling him it was about time — he reckons he was still kicking arse. When he hung up his rugby boots Dad really threw himself into fishing and hunting to fill in his spare time. When we were growing up Dad loved it when the three of us kids all went bush with him. I didn't really enjoy going out hunting. I didn't like killing animals — it's really not in my nature. I would rather cuddle them than kill them. But I would have done anything to make my dad proud. He's just one of those people you really want to make proud. He's got this real mana about him and I hated ever feeling like I'd failed him. So I'd go out and do the very best I could when we were out in the bush together. Secretly, I'd aim over the heads of the animals — not that Dad knew that! It taught me to hang in there when it's cold and I'm tired and scared.
Mum being a teacher meant that we could all read and write a bit before we started school. I was always a really good student and never struggled to keep up in class. I enjoyed primary school and I didn't have to worry about my asthma there as Mum taught at my school. I was a real Mummy's girl and I felt secure knowing that my mum was never more than a call away. In fact, she still is and we are very close.
Once I started school, a whole lot of organised sports were suddenly available to me. At the age of five, I decided that gymnastics was for me. Even after taking me to creative dancing classes, Mum was really relieved that I hadn't picked dancing as she reckoned that it was a bit prissy and wouldn't have suited me. I think she was right. I was definitely a 'rip, shit and bust' kid who couldn't sit still for five minutes.
Even from a young age, I was diligent about going to gym practices and making sure I achieved as much as I could. I was coordinated and quite talented at it but I wasn't exceptional. I remember watching Nadia Comaneci win three gold medals at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. Her perfect 10 on the uneven bars was something else and from that moment on she was my absolute idol. I just wanted to be like her.
Saturday mornings in our household were always really busy with the boys going to rugby and me at gymnastics or netball. Mum and Dad were always very involved in what we were doing and that helped us all to excel. At the same time, they were never pushy. Dad would follow Dawson's rugby and Mum would be with me at gymnastics. Mitchell was quite sick as a kid as he suffers from coeliac disease so he fitted in around the rest of us a bit.
Between my asthma and Mitchell's coeliac disease, the Tamatis were pretty well known at New Plymouth hospital. Even though Dawson was the healthy one, he was almost fearless and was always doing things like putting his fingers in sockets and jumping off stuff. We must have been a real handful for Mum and Dad!
I was always really determined and even at the age of about ten, there were a few times I'd throw wobblies if things went wrong. I've always pushed myself to be the best and I've always been disappointed when I don't live up to the goals I have set myself.
The fear of dying that came from my asthma meant that at the age of ten, I took myself off to church. I would read the Bible every day and I had lots of rituals that I thought would protect me from dying. I would never step on a crack, I'd have to say prayers if anyone said 'God'. Talcum powder and moisturiser absolutely terrified me — I hated them so much. I reckon that happened because the scent in them could set off an asthma attack. Eventually, that fear of something that could cause an asthma attack became so ingrained that the smell of talc could make me vomit. Looking back, it was really obsessive behaviour for a little kid.
When I was about twelve, I changed from doing sports gymnastics to rhythmic gymnastics and that's when things got tricky for me. Every week we'd get weighed when we went to class and if we put on weight we'd be given a hard time. I started being told that I was too heavy to be a gymnast. I was one of those kids who went through a growth spurt early and I was taller and bigger built than the other girls. It didn't matter that I was a muscular build, all that seemed to matter was being skinny. I was put up with the sixteen year olds at the age of twelve and the expectations that were put on me were huge — I struggled to cope with the pressure that was put on me.
To keep my weight down for gymnastics, I took up running. I'd run a couple of kilometres a day. At the age of twelve, I did a 10-kilometre run on my own.
When I went to high school, I continued to be a diligent student and I played netball and water polo but running wasn't so much a sport for me as a way of keeping fit. I never had a problem being picked for a sports team!
By the age of fourteen I was still one of the top gymnasts in Taranaki and I was competing at national level, but I struggled to break into the elite level of the sport. I knew I didn't have what it took to be in the top five in the country but, even so, I worked really hard to try and do it. I decided to give up gymnastics because the pressure was just too much. As always, Mum was by my side supporting whatever decision I made.
Looking back, those early setbacks have made me even more determined to achieve my goals in later life. Despite the tough times I had before I quit gymnastics, I know that the sport taught me the importance of discipline, training and fitness that has stayed with me for my whole life. I really believe that failing to reach the pinnacle of the gymnastics world taught me a heap of lessons that have enabled me to excel in my chosen sport now. It also helped me realise that even if I didn't have natural ability or talent, I could still achieve anyway.
The boys and I still had our squabbles. I tried to keep the peace between Dawson and Mitchell doing whatever was necessary to stop Dawson from picking on Mitchell. It was a bit of a shock to the system when I became a teenager and decided to take Dawson on in a fight. Suddenly, he was bigger than me and I couldn't beat him up anymore. I was shocked and Mitchell was on his own. Sorry bro!
One year for Christmas, Mum and Dad gave the three of us a surfboard to share. Dad was a bit nervous about the three of us being out on the surfboard. Apart from fishing Dad didn't really like being out in the water but Mum had always been a real water baby so she knew we'd be really into it. We loved it. The three of us got together and hand painted it — it was fantastic! The very first day we went out on it, I jumped on it and it flipped up and hit Mitchell in the head. Once again, the Tamatis were off to hospital — this time so Mitchell could get stitches.
All three of us got really into surfing and the timing couldn't have been better for me. I had plenty of time now I'd given up gymnastics so I threw myself into becoming the best surfer I could. Before long, thankfully, Dawson, Mitchell and I all had our own surfboards. With the beach practically at the bottom of the garden, the three of us were out in the surf every day. For the first two years, we surfed year round without wetsuits. That's how into it we were. I was a bit of a tomboy and I was determined to be as good as Dawson and Mitchell and I knew to do that I had to be tough. I wasn't the most talented surfer but I would go out in the biggest waves, if the boys did. If I got given a wave I'd go over the falls whether I tumbled down the face or I managed to handle it, I'd take it. I put up with the cold and getting hammered by the waves just for the camaraderie and the adventure of it. I loved the adrenaline buzz and I loved jumping in the car with the guys and cruising along the coast looking for waves. Once we were in the water, we'd stay out there until we froze. It's a hard sport. You get beaten around by the waves — in big waves it's like being in a washing machine and often I'd be underwater for what seemed like ages.
Once we were all freezing cold, we'd head home with the music blaring all the way only stopping off to scoff some fish 'n' chips. When you're starving and cold after an afternoon's surfing, they're the best food ever. It sometimes took us a couple of hours to warm up again. I remember for the first couple of years after we got our boards, the three of us used to surf every day, right through winter.
There weren't that many women surfing competitively at that time — I think there were only about four of us in New Plymouth — but I went into all the competitions I could and I thrived on competing against other surfers.
While gymnastics taught me the importance of training and fitness, surfing taught me to never give up and the importance of working through fear for the thrill of a ride. I reckon that's when I first started to harden up a lot.
While surfing took up a lot of my time, I continued to achieve well at school, getting University Entrance and Higher School Certificate as well as being sports captain in my final year. When I finished school, a lot of people thought I'd go to university but I didn't feel ready to leave New Plymouth just yet. I was happy living in Taranaki and I knew that if I went to university I wouldn't be able to spend as much time surfing as I wanted. I got a job at an insurance company alongside my cousin Kim.
I worked there for a year before deciding that being a student might not be such a bad life. I enrolled in some classes in New Plymouth for a year, which meant I could both study and surf. At the end of my first year of study I decided to make the big move up to Auckland where I enrolled in a business studies course. It was tough being away from home for the first time but I managed to get back home to Taranaki as often as possible.CHAPTER 2
HITTING THE ROAD
You only do what you think you can do
One day in the middle of December 1994, the rain was absolutely tipping it down in New Plymouth. One of my mates was on his way to my mum's place when he saw this poor tourist on a bike. He did that real Kiwi thing and stopped and offered him a lift and a place to sleep for a night. The tourist was glad of the offer of a dry place to sleep and to be off his bike. They carried on to Mum's place. She was quite taken with this handsome young Austrian tourist called Paul who was spending a few months cycling around New Zealand. He told her that he was going to climb Mount Taranaki the next day and Mum, who has lived in Taranaki her whole life, warned him how dangerous the mountain can be. Paul assured Mum that he was an experienced mountain climber but that didn't convince my mum. Her parting words were, 'Be careful up there, I don't want to hear about you on the radio tomorrow!'
If anyone needs proof that they should listen to their mum (and other people's mums!), that was it. A couple of days later, Mum heard that there was a tourist missing on the mountain. She knew straight away that it was Paul that everyone was up there searching for. He'd gone up the mountain in summer clothes with very little in the way of food and equipment. Even though it was summer, it was cold up the mountain at night and by the next day everyone thought he would be dead. But 36 hours after Paul had gone up the mountain, just before nightfall, the Search and Rescue team found him near the top. He had a badly broken leg with open wounds but apart from that was in good condition. He told his rescuers that he had been hit by a small avalanche, which had pushed him off a bluff.
No one could believe that he was still in such a good condition. Having already wound the rescue team up by going up the mountain completely unprepared, he caused them a bit more grief by trying to take photos of his injuries while the medical team were trying to get him on the helicopter! After being helicoptered off the mountain, Paul was admitted to Taranaki Base Hospital where he began what was to be a lengthy healing and rehabilitation process.
Over the coming months we would learn that this kind of determination and single mindedness was pretty typical of him.
While all this had been going on, I was up in Auckland at university. I got home the day after Paul was admitted to hospital and Mum told me about the young guy she'd met who had had this horrific accident up the mountain. She suggested I go and see him as he had no family or friends around. I was on summer holidays and had nothing better to do so I decided I'd pop in and say hello. I never suspected that my entire life would change as a result of that one visit.
I walked into Paul's hospital room and, even though it sounds a bit cheesy, it was love at first sight. I never actually believed that it could happen but that connection was just there. I thought he was absolutely gorgeous and, at the age of 22 and having lived in New Zealand my whole life, to me he seemed so exotic. I introduced myself and explained that he'd met my mum. He was pretty pleased to have some company so I told him I'd come and see him again the next day.
Excerpted from Running Hot by Lisa Tamati Nicola McCloy. Copyright © 2009 Lisa Tamati and Nicola McCloy. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Meet the Author
Lisa Tamati has completed most of the world's toughest endurance races. Nicola McCloy has written several books, including Whykickamoocow.
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