You are not permitted to download, save or email this image. Visit image gallery to purchase the image.
As the curtain prepares to fall on the final Alps 2 Ocean Ultra, organiser Mike Sandri knows emotions will run high when the final competitor crosses the finish line. Daniel Birchfield caught up with him before the endurance race got under way.
When Mike Sandri took part in the Canyon to Canyon Ultra in the United States in September 2016, he knew little of what would eventually come of his experience.
While he did not finish the gruelling 280km six-day unsupported race, he was questioned at length by other competitors who, after getting to know him, wanted to know why New Zealand did not have its own ultra race.
Mr Sandri thought that was a very good question — the more he thought about it, the more he wanted to make it happen.
He believed the terrain from Mt Cook to Oamaru, a distance of more than 300km, would be perfect for such a race, and when he returned from the Canyon to Canyon event, he set his idea in motion.
The inaugural Alps 2 Ocean Ultra was staged close to 18 months later, in early 2018.
It attracted 125 athletes from 15 countries.
After another successful race last year, it was decided this year’s edition, which starts at the base of Mt Cook tomorrow, would be the last.
He said the time was right to call it a day, despite the race’s continued popularity.
"I think we’ve been reasonably successful as a race for the last three years and its been four years in the making, so we thought the time was right to finish it.
"It’s a massive, massive job and it’s a massive commitment from a whole lot of volunteers and I really don’t want to overstay that welcome of asking people to come back year after year after year. We thought let’s finish it while it’s on a high."
When asked what made the race special, Mr Sandri did not have to think for very long.
"It’s the people. It honestly is. I’ve gone to races around the world and the volunteers we have here are just amazing and that’s why we’ve got such a high percentage of people coming back to the race.
"A lot of people do this kind of race once and disappear, but these guys want to come back because they love the town, they love the people in it and how they get looked after while they’re here.
"I think coming to New Zealand ... coming to a quirky wee town like Oamaru is quite different. The terrain is amazing. You can go to other big races in the world and you can be running for half an hour or an hour and nothing changes because the area is just so vast. Here, you can go around the corner after six or seven hundred metres something changes again. It’s ever-changing all the time and I think that’s what people like. It’s not an easy course ... they like the challenge."
Over the years the race has attracted people from all works of life.
In Mr Sandri’s view that was what made the race what it had become: one that is full of heart, determination and outpourings of emotion.
"There’s all sorts. There’s ones that take it really seriously, there’s ones that just turn up and put their gear together at the last minute.
"There’s been people that cry, people that just want a hug, there’s people that laugh all the way through it, there’s people that get frustrated and angry. It’s a real mixed bag, but they all get on really well together, which is the good thing about it."
One of those is 37-year-old Alexandra Wittke, who is originally from Germany but has lived in Hong Kong for the past five years.
She completed the extreme test of physical and metal endurance last year and, rather than having any unfinished businesses, is back for one simple reason: her love for the race and New Zealand.
"I loved every bit of it," she said of her 2019 experience after signing on for the race at the Oamaru Opera House on Thursday.
"It was my first ever multi-stage ultra and I wanted to come to New Zealand and travel here, because I want to live here. I was looking specifically for a trail run, and I came across the Alps 2 Ocean Ultra."
While she described it as a ‘‘challenge’’, the toll the race took on athletes did not deter her from coming back.
"I couldn’t help myself. It’s great to see the people again. I know some of the other that did it last year, so you’re connecting with great people. It’s just great and it’s very special to be here."
Mr Sandri said the fact the final race was about to start had yet to sink in.
Only when the final runner made it home would he know what his reaction would be.
"Even just talking about it now it’s difficult to talk about the reality of it being the last one. I think once the last runner turns up down the re at the harbour I think the reality will set in."