There was a lot of emotion at the finish line of the Alps 2 Ocean Ultra marathon in Oamaru on Saturday, not just for the runners, but their friends and families, event organisers and volunteers.
As a crowd of about 200 cheered them in, each of the 98 runners who survived to the final day of the seven-stage 323km ultra endurance race from Aoraki/Mt Cook to Oamaru was embraced at the finish line by race director Mike Sandri, who shared in the excitement, heartaches and pain as each runner finished.
Mr Sandri, who has competed in ultra-running events around the world, knows what the athletes go through and said it was important for him to be at the finish line.
“It’s about respect and honouring what they do because it’s not easy – it’s probably the hardest thing some of those people will ever do in their lives,” he said.
His goal had been to bring a “world-class” event to the North Otago town and he was proud to have achieved that.
The inaugural event in 2018 had exceeded all expectations. They had raised the bar this year and people were already lined up to enter in 2020.
“I honestly think the race will take another leap next year.”
The Alps 2 Ocean Ultra was New Zealand’s only ultra-running stage race and the standard was very high this year, he said.
“They cut [last year’s] times by like an hour on some stages – and the top three guys in the supported [category] there was only a few minutes between them each day and they were pretty much sprinting the whole time to try and keep the position that they had,” he said.
The Alps 2 Ocean Ultra was small. Entries were limited but that was part of its charm, Mr Sandri said.
“By the end of the week they all know each other, they don’t care where they get or what the other person is doing – they just want the other person to finish,” he said.
“It’s an environment where everyone cares for each other, from the volunteers right through to race directors, that’s one thing that we wanted to push on the runners – we’re not here just to make some money we’re here to show you a good time and test you to the limits, but at the end of the day go away with some friendships that will last forever.
Mr Sandri was especially proud of the local competitors, such as Eric Ross (67), who held off the leaders to be first home on the toughest stage of the race, a gruelling 88km from the shores of Lake Ohau to Loch Laird.
“They all did fantastically well – we only had one [local] that had to pull out,” he said.
“Boy, they had a really tough time of it some days, just like the rest of them, but they made it to the end and finished which is always satisfying.”
International competitors were in awe of the North Otago landscape and were all amazed by the support from the Oamaru community at the finish line.
“It was great that the locals came down to cheer them on – they really, really appreciated that,” he said.
“They loved going through the old part of town; they said it was a fantastic way to finish a race.”
Mr Sandri said because so many people gave up their time at no cost to the event, they could place a real focus on raising as much money as possible to put back into the local community.
“Without all of the volunteers and sponsors, it just wouldn’t happen – we had 40 odd volunteers over the week, they just worked endlessly making sure stuff happened,” he said.
The final amount raised from the event was still being finalised, but he was thrilled the trust was able to donate $17, 500 for Ronald McDonald House at a prizegiving on Saturday night.