Date: 14 May 2016
Our third event in the five marathons challenge was snugly sandwiched between two full working days in Wellington. How’s that for luck. We left home before dawn on Friday morning, returning at around dusk, quickly unpacked camera equipment and repacked running gear, and dashed off to Napier to be in time for registration. Unfortunately, we were too late for the Expo.
We booked into a lovely AirBnB. I flopped into bed with a precooked rice meal and champagne ham, while Gerry made some tea and chatted a little bit with the friendly and welcoming host. It took a while to fall asleep and at around two we woke up and decided to have our first breakfast – a couple of handfuls of Cheerios. I realise this might sound completely crazy, but it has helped me quite a bit over the last couple of years to make sure I get my poos done before the race. We always set an alarm for this pre-breakfast for a couple of hours before getting up, but being awake an hour before the planned time, we figured we might as well just get it over with.
With the race being a point-to-point (starting on Marine Parade in Napier and finishing at Sileni Estates Winery in Hastings), Rob offered to help us get our car to the finish. Thanks Rob! We were going to give him a lift back to his car at the start, but he made other arrangements. The four of us in the challenge (Rob, Graeme, Gerry and myself) met at Graeme’s mum’s place at about 7:45 to walk to the start which was a kilometre or so away. The temperature was around 15 degrees Celsius, predicted to go up to 25 for the day. It was fairly windy, but luckily not really cold. Although I would have been cold had I not worn my wee puffer jacket (it is snug, windproof and weighs absolutely nothing, so is really no bother to tie around my waist and run for miles without knowing it is there). One older lady next to me in our starting corral (the 4 to 5-hour runners) was shivering like a stick and had goosebumps all over her tiny body. I nearly gave her my jacket as I was just comfortable at that stage.
A helicopter came flying over just above the palm trees in Marine Parade to get some footage of the start and I couldn’t help but think to myself: “that’s not a drone – this is a drone!”. I also realised where our entry fees went. And then we were off. It took a few seconds to reach the actual start before we could ease into a comfortable jog. The northwesterly made it hard going and I was hoping the prediction would be right in that it would ease later in the day, hoping that meant early in the morning. But it never stopped and in fact got stronger as the day went on.
Within the first few kilometres, I had to take my jacket off. Tied around my waist, we trotted along through the suburbs of Napier. If you have 42kms and many hours ahead of you, you sometimes end up finding the most silly things entertaining. Like on this occasion: we had the sun at our backs, making our shadows run ahead of us in long skinny figurines. And after a while, I suddenly noticed that the shadow of the sleeve of my jacket was bouncing exactly the way I once saw my heart valve flapping on a sonar visual. Doof-doof. Doof-doof. Doof-doof. The rhythm of my footsteps somehow mimicked my heart beat to a tee and the sleeve shadow looked exactly like the valve. It might seem weird to have your heart in mind when running, but actually, I can’t think of a better time.
The kilometre markers at this event were counting down and when we reached 41 to go, we had already done 1.5km instead of 1.2km. And then we started noticing that the kilometre markers were placed a little haphazardly; sometimes at 900 metres and sometimes at 1.1km intervals. We caught up with Rob at about 5kms, thinking that Graeme was still ahead of us (which we later found out was not the case).
I felt okay and was just hoping things would not make a turn for the worse any time soon. As we all know, anything can happen at any time during such a long event. The first 10km were all on tarmac with very long, straight, flat stretches and when we reached the 32km to go marker, we headed up a stop bank to run the next approximately 12km on gravel on top of the stop bank. Again, long flats stretching out ahead of you, which seems endless when you’re trying to reach landmarks like a tree, a fence post etc on the way. And that was also the only “hilly” bits on an otherwise very flat course – getting up and down stop banks or crossing over or under bridges.
As we trotted down the gravel walkway/cycleway, I was trying to get away from the guy behind me who was farting like crazy (he even warned everyone not to run behind him as it was dangerous territory). His last wet, bubbly fart nearly saw me losing my jelly baby and all I could think of was to get away from him. Then when Gerry (the wisecrack) suddenly said: “Well, usually the kilometres between 32 and 42 are the hardest and we’ve done that now – it can only get easier from here”, I wanted to kick him right off the stop bank. 🙂 But it did take my mind off the farting and soon after we managed to lose Mr Farty-pants.
The view from the stop banks were mostly apple orchards on the one side and on the other side grassy overgrown areas up to the river bank. We ran long sections next to Tutaekuri and Ngaruroro Rivers respectively. Lots of apples were lying the ground and I wondered if they will be used for juice? Oh and how many times I wanted to jump the fence and grab one of those juicy, delicious looking apples! Although it is pretty to run between the fruit orchards, there’s not a lot of variety and it gets uninspiring after a while.
At the halfway point, we passed the start of the 21.1km race which saw some 2260 participants. They started earlier and everything was deserted by the time we passed through. The marathon had about 800 participants and the 10km attracted some 1250 runners/walkers. Shortly after the halfway mark, we reached the second stretch of tarmac, running through more apple orchards. The water points up to here were placed at about 5km, 10km, 15km and 21km, but the next one was only at about 28kms – quite far. On this long stretch we did pass one of the Air New Zealand trolleys (actual in-flight trolleys that were converted with big wheels to make them more mobile – from advertisements before the event, I thought the air hosts and hostesses would run with them) but didn’t realise that this was the organisers idea of a water point maybe? They had jelly sweets, cookies and whole 750ml bottles of Powerade – not something you typically take at a drink station – but luckily we decided to take one of the Powerades, and it came in quite handy on this long, dry stretch.
At about the 9km to go marker, we went off-road again and saw a girl on a drip in a St Johns vehicle, and also some others who’s blood pressure were being taken and otherwise attended to by St John’s staff. By this stage, it seems as if a lot of people were really battling (I guess the above average temperatures didn’t help). My legs were quite sore and I could feel the consecutive marathons starting to add up. Gerry mentioned a bit earlier that we managed to do the first 20km in about two hours, and that lifted my spirits a bit, as I was sure I would not manage anything faster than 6:30 minutes/km splits. I don’t wear a watch and usually just run by feel, so had no idea what sort of splits we were doing. At that point, it seemed like we might be able to make up some time for our 5-hour average on the challenge. But the last 10km of a marathon really is no joke and I find it extremely hard to keep going when everything is sore and your body is screaming to stop.
At last, we entered the Village Press olive grove and vineyards. Running through the vines we passed quite a few runners who were reduced to walking. If it wasn’t for the fact that I just wanted to get it over and done with, I might have joined them in walking the last 5km to the end. When we reached the final kilometre I could almost smell the finish, but alas, it turned out to be a very long kilometre. To make up for it, the last couple of hundred metres straight ahead where you could see the finish banner in a distance, were absolutely fantastic. It was lined with supporters and families and everybody cheering everybody on. And the realisation that you are so close helps to ease the pain for just a short while as the cheering and music and public announcements all add up to get you over the finish line.
This was the highlight of the event. What follows might seem a bit harsh, but I’ll try to keep to the facts, albeit from my personal subjective viewpoint. When you charge $150 entry fee, you set yourself up for criticism. Add to that $50 for the T-shirt (which doesn’t have the date/year on it, so could potentially be handed out again in future), plus bus tickets back to the start (at $20? $25? it is impossible to get this info from their website) and it becomes a very costly event. While we did receive some basic goodies: a sample 250ml bottle of wine, a sample of the Pure electrolyte sports drink that was used in the race (and which I’m happy to report didn’t have any adverse effects), a tablespoon-size sample bottle of Village Press olive oil in our race bags, as well as some bananas, Powerade and cookies on the course, it certainly didn’t justify the cost.
I couldn’t help thinking that this event felt like the ugly stepsister of the Queenstown marathon (by the same organisers – Lagardere, owned by Ironman Oceania). The branding was similar (logos almost the same), medals just about the same, and even the “motivational posters” were recycled from Queenstown. Which is fair enough if you haven’t done Queenstown. But it all just felt a bit cheeky: they charge an exorbitant amount of money but make you feel cheated by their slap-dash approach. Just as a case in point: one of the motivational posters, placed halfway down a 7 metre stop bank slope, read “pump those arms” … WTF guys, was it too much effort to place it on the uphill side of the stop bank, where you actually need to pump your arms? And also the poster reading “smell the air” was nicely placed next to a compost yard. Maybe it was meant as satire?
The water points didn’t live up to expectations either. Besides being few and far between for an event of this stature where they easily could have had water points every 3 or 4km, they also couldn’t cope with the numbers of participants. At the second water point, a volunteer was frantically trying to pour more sports drink as they’d run out completely while the stream of runners kept getting longer. On top of that, and probably because there weren’t enough volunteers to handle everything, the sports drink was sometimes not mixed properly so you ended up with a mouth full of solids, and at other times diluted too much. Having said that, I’m eternally grateful for volunteers and helpers at events, as they sacrifice a lot to be there, really don’t have to do it, and often have to take a lot of abuse from grumpy runners. I felt sorry for the frantic volunteer. But my problem is with the organisers who seemed to have charged a lot, so they could spend most of it on advertising/marketing, so they could attract more runners/walkers, so they could make more money. A great business model, but … Make sure there are enough volunteers; brief them and help them! Make sure everybody knows what they’re up against, and what’s expected of them. Don’t just collect the money and bugger the rest. It’s the little things that start adding up, like Rob not getting a race bag when he arrived shortly before the close of registration. They knew exactly how many participants to expect, how could they not have enough race bags? And again – it was the same bags as was handed out at Queenstown. Again, fair enough, re-use is good. But it just felt as if all the left-overs were used at this event and not much new or unique was dished out for participants.
A walker friend also mentioned that despite the fact that you could enter as a walker (same fees as for runners), there was absolutely no recognition of the walkers. The website states: “Timing results will be provided by age group category for both runners and walkers (my emphasis), and will be based on participant’s mat time.” However, no prize-money or even a mention of the first, second and third placed male/female walkers, or age category winners. A gross oversight by the organisers? Or is this exclusively a running event and should be advertised as such?
On the upside – it was great that this event was halfway off-road and for the remainder on closed sealed roads. So no worries about traffic, as opposed to the Rotorua marathon, for example. St Johns was very visible and all over the course, should you run into trouble. The volunteers were great and they put in a lot of effort to try and create a very enjoyable event for all runners and walkers, despite the challenges of the day.
Personally, I had a great run, felt good and managed to make up some much needed minutes for our challenge. (We now only need to do the remaining two marathons in under 4:54 each to still have a five-hour average across all five marathons.) The relentless northwesterly wind wasn’t great, but it evaporated any sweat I might have produced. The temperature was just perfect for me. The bits where you run next to a shelter belt in the shade bordered almost on the cold side, but I’m sure it was very welcoming for most other runners. It certainly seemed like a lot of runners were battling with the heat.
The finish area was good. Lots of stalls to buy food and drinks and just relax under the trees after the run.
So, it’s not a bad event. But it’s not a great event either. And it certainly didn’t live up to the expectations of fantastic scenery as advertised on their website. Marketing hype like “Running through a natural wonderland of wineries, orchards, and late autumn Hawke’s Bay countryside” oversold it a little. Very poetic and a nice piece of writing, but not entirely true. Queenstown marathon (which is equally expensive) was great and very scenic and despite personally having had a terrible time at the event last year, I still loved it. Whereas I felt just a little bit cheated at the Hawke’s Bay Marathon.