Kiwi Sanctuary Half Marathon Rotorua to Bay of Islands

Paihia is the main entry point into the Bay of Islands, famed for beautiful beaches, turquoise waters and sporty activities that take advantage of those. The Bay of Islands was on our itinerary despite being a few hundred kilometres north of Auckland, which meant a big extra drive.

The weather was just beginning to turn against us for the last few days of our time in NZ, so on arriving at the Bay of Islands patchy rain and cloudy skies meant we didn’t quite get the spectacular impression that we might have. We pressed on regardless, and after speaking with another unhelpful chap at tourist information, hired a kayak for the afternoon to head out around a couple of the islands. Yes, nothing if not committed to exercise on holiday!

That was just the start of it. There’s also a nearby kiwi sanctuary, one of few areas of dense population in the wild – nice place for a walk. On a gate at the start of the walk was a notice warning of disruption from a half marathon taking place soon, on the paths in the sanctuary. “A half marathon? But we can run…!”

That was it. At fifteen hours notice, we decided to run a half-marathon through a kiwi sanctuary, before we’d even found out that there was to be a haka at the start.

Plans to party all night in Paihia with hordes of 17-year-olds who’d turned up for some pop gig were canned, and carb-loading began. Early night led to early morning, and as we woke the rain began to fall. What we found as the start line was brilliant – friendly and delightfully local. Kiwis seem to be in pretty good shape, by and large, and have a reputation for epic amateur sporting prowess. There was an awful lot of kit around branded with various running clubs from the area (Jo: “I don’t want to come last!”). Everyone seemed in pretty good cheer despite the looming rainclouds.

The haka was brilliant. Introduced as if it was totally normal (“are the haka guys ready yet?”), three men and two women leapt into action wearing the ceremonial dress and tattoos. It was not nearly as polished as the “cultural performance” we’d paid to see at the geological Disneyland, but so much more enthusiastic. The horn-like conch shells were in good voice and there was plenty of swinging of big sticks. The stamping feet were well served by the hollow stage, and the assembled runners gave a big cheer before heading out to the cold start line.

The first 10km passed in what felt like an instant. The start was flat, through the town on the road alongside the beach past where we’d rented our kayaks, over the hill to the next beach and back again to the start. There was plenty of banter from the runners about how lovely a day it was and it seemed pretty clear that no-one was taking it too seriously! I found my pacemaker, a woman who seemed to be twenty yards ahead of me no matter how hard I was running. The rain was crazy, and parts of the path went through deep puddles, steeplechase style. This was not going to be a fast time.

After the half-way mark we headed into the kiwi sanctuary. Being nocturnal they would all have been asleep (or at the very least hiding from the big running humans) so we didn’t see any. We were not on roads any more – narrow paths through dense forest, made very muddy from the rainfall and covered in rocks and tree roots, often with steep drops down hills off the side of the path. They had actually drafted in Search and Rescue personnel and stationed them along the route, though that did seem one step too far! This section felt really quick, though probably only because of the concentration required not to lose footing or catch an ankle.

To make up the total distance the organisers had thrown in an extra out-and-back along a road off the main course, a steep hill down to the shore and back up. Down the hill was fast, but you could see the effort etched on the faces coming back up the hill. Still, everyone who I ran past here had a big smile and shared a shout of encouragement or a high five.

The last few kilometres was all downhill, and I passed the line in about 1hr 56min, my slowest half marathon time. I blame the kiwis and the hills! After being handed a satsuma by a policeman on the finish line (!) and high-fiving my early pacemaker as she finished a couple of minutes later (ha!), I didn’t have long to wait for Jo at 2hr 17min. As she approached the finish I handed her the Union Jack that’s been adorning the inside of Barry, so she ran over the line looking quite the patriot! The ambush worked, and a guy with a microphone who was interviewing randomly-picked finishers and giving out extra prizes jumped towards her. A little chat broadcast around the finish area and Jo was the proud owner of some new running socks and a t-shirt that was for a different half marathon!

The sun came out for the afternoon so it was time to munch some well-earned cake.