Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Te Houtaewa Challenge 63k. 23/03/2013.

The week between Tarawera and Te Houtaewa was spent in Kerikeri near the top of North Island with Jan and family, with plenty of things to see and do or just generally chill and recharge batteries between Ultras. On one day I helped Jan to erect the last of the advertising hoardings for his race in a month's time. It was a long time before we found a suitable spot that wasn't too stony to hammer in the stakes. It was hard work in the hot autumn sunshine (hotter than most of our summers).

I learned a new word while I was in New Zealand. 'Barista' is the term given to professionally trained brewers of fresh bean coffee. New Zealanders know how to make good coffee. They also know how to make good cakes. Combine the two in one emporium and you are in decadent delicatessen heaven. We visited a good few to sample their wares – carrot cake, chocolate mint slices, spicy ginger slices with sugar crystal icing, ….. Here's an Autumnal alfresco flat white with carrot cake:

The Te Houtaewa Challenge (otherwise known as the 90 Mile Beach Run) consisted of 6km (fun run), 21km (half marathon), 42km (marathon) and 63km (ultra) solo races, a relay race and bicycle races down 90 Mile Beach. I was doing the Ultra (what else?), which required an early morning bus journey from Kaitaia near the finish to the start at Maunganui Bluff. A night in a 1960's vintage yet spotless motel in Kaitaia had left me feeling refreshed.

The race is based on Maori legend and steeped in Maori culture. The race director spoke a lot in Maori and performed a Maori dance before the start (see top photo). Maori prayers were also said to send us on our way safely. We set off running southwards at high tide, running close to the water line to get the firmest footing. There were still some soft patches of sand early on, though. Our small group consisted of solo and relay runners. None of the race categories had that many participants. Up to 20 would be a typical number. Our destination remained hidden in the haze over the horizon. However we could not get lost as long as we kept the sea on our right. The sun was just beginning to rise into a cloudless blue sky. The temperature was perfect for running.

I soon realised that there was an aid station every 3km with water, Coke and bananas – perfect for a day's lean mean ultra running. Each one had a km-to-go sign. The early ones counted down almost unnoticed while running along the flat was still easy. Vans and pick-ups with cheering supporters (mostly for the relay runners) regularly drove past. They were free with their encouragement for everyone though, not just 'their' runners. The whole event was proving to be so friendly, just like all ultra marathons anywhere in the world.

Young Maori relay runners at 39km to go aid station.

90 Mile Beach is a designated highway – the only beach highway in the world, apparently. We saw a few speeding buses, vans and 4WDs, which always gave us a very wide, respectful berth. There was plenty of room to play with after all. The field quickly became spread out and running became quite solitary, apart from the odd overtaking manoeuvre by relay runners and cyclists. Our destination was marked by a range of hills on the horizon, which by now had made themselves visible. The full 63km distance traversed a big right-turning arc around the sandy bay that took a day's worth of running to cover.

I arrived at the marathon start point just after they had departed. I overtook a few of the back markers who were walking and caught up with David Hammer, with whom I ran the last 42km. It was his first marathon, and what a unique, iconic one to pick as a first. It was good to have a running buddy again. It's unusual at the best of times but two weekends in a row?

David takes refreshment with 30km to go.

By the time we passed the half marathon start point, the runners had long since departed. There would be no catching any of them. By now, just keeping a running action going along the flat with no variation or undulation was proving to be a real struggle. Although I was trying to run it was probably no faster than an energetic walk. As I ran and answered the call of nature as required near the water's edge with privacy guaranteed by the great distance to the nearest human being, I wondered how runners who might need a slightly more private toilet facility would cope, when I saw the roving thunderbox on a trailer parked up at one of the aid stations. The organisers thought of everything. I was already impressed by the organisation.

David and I caught up with Rex Carmichael, who was waxing and waning like ultra runners do. It's why we play cat and mouse with each other. He had another surge to the finish to leave us standing. With 3km to go, Jan found me, having driven along the beach from the finish. The expected “What kept you?” and “Where've you been?” - type comments followed. It was expected given the 7.5 hours I needed to 'run' ~39 miles on the flat. (If only I knew what 'genes' he wears I might be able to go as fast as he can go.)

Just before the finish, marked by the colourful tent roofs of the village, there were rock outcrops in the sandy beach. I aimed straight for them to feel the ascent (all two feet of it) and benefit from the variation in pace and stride. I could almost feel myself rejuvenating as I picked my way through before running to the line. David was joined by his loved ones to cross the finish line of his first marathon, the most iconic marathon he will ever run.

David with an admirer, Rex and me.

A few hours post-race were spent listening to the live band, cheering in the finishers, rehydrating, chilling and chatting in the temporary village while we waited for the presentations. The traditional Maori hāngi meal (a selection of chopped-up animal parts and vegetables wrapped in foil, steamed then eaten with grubby fingers sticky from Coke and sand) was very tasty and gave temporary respite from hunger. A proper coffee and a ginger beer went down well. The tortuous deep leg massage and muscle mangling that had me rearing up off the massage table was not appreciated quite so much. It was a good job I hadn't been able to go a bit faster and trash my legs otherwise some damage might have been caused. I won't say to whom or what.

Waiting for the presentations.

There were many race categories and the presentations were quite long, which was good. The evening sunshine was warm and I didn't want the day to end. The whole organisation and my first Maori culture experience was pretty impressive. The proceedings were closed by the young Maories singing a prayer hymn. Religion and respect seemed to be a feature of their culture, which is admirable.

Here are the pictures I took.

A brief Maori news video of the event was uploaded to facebook, which gives us way up here in the northern hemisphere a unique opportunity to hear the Maori language. (It does remind me of watching the Snowdonia Marathon report on S4C. In this case the English subtitles are appreciated.)

Afterwards before our return to Kerikeri I had to persuade my willing chauffeur Jan to stop in Kaitaia for a foot long Subway with lashings of tea to sustain life. Did I mention appetite? Rampant sir, rampant.

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