As usual I spent Sunday 17 February engaged in my second favourite activity: running. The first, before you imagine something salacious, is actually eating cake, and leads quite appropriately to me having to undertake the second.
I took part in the Bramley 20/10. Organised by the Reading Roadrunners, it’s a favourite with those preparing to run the London Marathon in April and when given the choice of one lap (10 miles) or two laps (20 miles) I obviously plumped for the longer one. Why? Who knows? Frankly it’s a slippery slope I am on and I think I need help.
After a frosty and then foggy start to the morning, the race itself was glorious, about nine degrees and sunny, with lovely blue sky and hardly a cloud in sight; perhaps I should even have popped on some sunscreen to protect my delicate, fair skin. It was a nice run, a good run, and although the temptation was strong to stop after a mere 10, I plodded onwards, even managing to up the pace to 15. The final stretch was a little hilly, and the final mile a little grumpy, but I finished in a really very satisfying 2.50.
What it did give me time to think about was why I choose to do certain races. At the moment my decisions are largely inspired by a small group of friends who compete in races regularly, not because they are massively competitive, but because they enjoy running and live in an area that has a strong club running tradition and like to support that whilst enjoying a variety of routes and terrains.
When I lived in New Zealand my decision-making was different; I mostly ran alone and took part in far fewer races. Everywhere was just so far away from Hanmer Springs and there didn’t seem to be as many running events to choose from; the Kiwis are pretty fond of their multi-sport events (and at that time I wasn’t). Added to that, races were often held on Saturdays and I used to work weekends. All in all, not the greatest combination of elements for creating a full racing calendar. So when I chose a race it had to be special and my all-time favourite event resulted from those circumstances.
At the top of the South Island of New Zealand is one of the country’s most beautiful regions, the Abel Tasman National Park, home to the Abel Tasman Coast Track. Listed as one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the track runs for 54.4 km along some of the most scenic coastline I have ever had the fortune to enjoy. And I’ve enjoyed it walking, kayaking and running. Usually visitors spend between three and five days hiking along its undulating route, but in September every year the Department of Conservation opens it up for one day to 300 hardy runners. Competitors aren’t challenged to run the whole track, I think that would be seriously hard work and I consider myself to be reasonably fit. The race starts at Arawoa in the north and finishes in Marahau, a charming little community 36 km (22 and a half miles) away at the southern end. It’s definitely not a walk in the park.
Entries open in March, and fearing it would fill up fast I entered immediately, anxious to attain my place. If I remember rightly, it also isn’t cheap. But considering it’s a hiking trail along the coast and both competitors and support staff need to be taken in by boat I don’t think you can complain too much about the entry fee. On race weekend I drove the four hours from Hanmer Springs on lovely empty New Zealand roads up past Nelson to Marahau. I was staying at the Barn Backpackers and had treated myself to a double cabin. I didn’t want to have to suffer sharing with a stranger before and after the race, particularly if they weren’t taking part.
Early September is still the low season and only the very beginning of spring. Marahau was pretty quiet. Having also been there at the height of summer I can definitely recommend the spring alternative, probably less of a party atmosphere and less predictable weather, but it can get extremely busy come campervan season and it’s difficult to escape the multitude of tourists.
It’s a long race day. You have to be ready at race HQ at 7.30 at the very latest to catch the bus to the water taxis. However, I challenge you to find a more scenic journey to the start of a race than being taxied along the Abel Tasman, passing the occasional pod of dolphins (admittedly we might have just been incredibly lucky). They have quite strict requirements as to what you must carry with you along the track (waterproof, hat, gloves, whistle, safety blanket, and a full camelback) and carry out spot checks to make sure you abide by the rules. Best to be safety conscious when you have 300 people running over 20 miles along a track with mostly only water access. The organisers also insist that you can complete a half marathon in less than 2.10 before you even think about signing up because there’s a couple of parts of the route that run across the sand and if you take too long to get there you’ll get a bit more than wet feet.
We were incredibly lucky with the weather, possibly a little too lucky as it was actually pretty warm. I had walked some of the track with my sister on a previous visit but had forgotten how undulating it actually was. I remembered it being flat-ish. I had trained on some of the hills around Hanmer Springs and also along various walking tracks around Canterbury but nothing prepared me for the constant up and down. It was actually going reasonably well until about 20km, but then the undulations finally took their toll and my upper thighs and hips gradually started to complain. The final kilometres were definitely more hard than enjoyable, there’s only so much that beautiful scenery can do to take your mind off your complaining limbs. Towards the end I couldn’t even vaguely run down the most gradual of slopes and the final hundred meters on the causeway across the estuary were agonising when they should have been a pleasure. But the experience was amazing; the overall winner even stood at the end and cheered everyone over the finish line. Not many races inspire that level of encouragement.
We were given lunch at the finish tent, a Subway sandwich and one of their gooey cookies, and then had time to shower and nap before prize-giving in the evening. Prize-giving followed dinner (fully provided, plus a free beer) and by then I had even acquired some friends. All the racers staying at the Barn gathered together, connected now by our achievement and our shared accommodation. To be honest, prize-givings are not usually worth sticking around for but this was part of the whole experience and the small number of competitors gave it a close-knit feel. It helped that they gave away a lot of spot prizes too, obviously not to me, that goes without saying, I never win anything. Fortunately though everyone at the Barn except me and one other bloke came away with a lovely alcoholic prize.
Prize-giving over we migrated back to the Barn and having gathered some firewood hung out in their outdoor seating area with a warming fire and plenty of booze. It was our very own after party, full of exhausted but happy runners.
Unfortunately sitting down at picnic tables for too long eventually took its toll on overworked and understretched muscles and when the party ended and bedtime arrived I could actually no longer walk without excruciating pain and had to be helped to my cabin. Not as dodgy as it sounds, I promise, but a couple of charming runners actually carried me over to my cabin and then departed like the true gentlemen they were.
A fantastic race weekend that I would recommend to anyone with a love of New Zealand and a desire to do something a little bit different than the regular tourist options.
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