Tim Sutton July 2017
Waiting for the adventure to begin. Photo: Lilla Cso
An adventure run like no other, the A100 stands alone. It’s quite possibly the most exclusive Ultra Marathon in New Zealand. With an entry fee only half that of most ultras, all profits going to local conservation and a field limited to just 20 adventurous athletes; it’s amazing that in its first three years it has failed to sell out. First run in 2014 as the first stage ultra in the country, the A100 begins in NZ’s capital City, Wellington and finishes three grueling days later in the wild Aorangi hills, on the south coast of the Wairarapa. Maybe it is the race’s catch phrase “Definitely not for the weak”, rightly suggesting a big step up from the smaller one day race (the Aorangi Undulator), which makes up the middle stage on day two dubbed “Not for the weak”. The event is the brainchild of race director Chris Martin who was inspired by the Welsh “Dragons Back” stage-race. He wanted to provide a challenging but rewarding adventure which showcases some of the lesser known (but no less beautiful) parts of the region. A keen sense of adventure, knowing your way around a map and the ability to be self sufficient is part of what draws a hardy few to test themselves against this challenge.
Moonrise on the Aorangi Coast. Photo: Marlena Wasiak
Day one is an ultra in itself covering 50km and 1100m of ascent. Competitors are lulled into a false sense of security as they set out from the pretty beachside village of Eastbourne, along the flat gravel coast road. The adventure really begins 20km in where runners are directed inland via the wide, rocky Orongorongo riverbed, affording multiple route options and many river crossings. An honest climb to Mt Mathews’ South Saddle then delivers athletes into the remote and rugged Mukamuka Valley for some serious rock running and a fantastic wilderness experience. After 5kms runners are spat out onto the coast road again, where 8kms of undulating 4WD track can quickly turn into a death march if the river valleys have taken their toll on legs. 50km after setting out competitors cross the finish line having run themselves from one region to another, and can rest safe in the knowledge that the hardest day awaits the following morning.
Lake Kohangapiripiri, Pencarrow Head. Photo: Tim Sutton
Orongorongo River. Photo: Tim Sutton
View north from South Saddle. Photo: Tim Sutton
Head of the wild Mukamuka Valley. Photo: Tim Sutton
Day two, at 33km and over 2000m of ascent, is not to be underestimated. It is also the flagship one day “Aorangi Undulator” race, and the perfect way for people considering the A100 but not yet sure, to test the waters. The route is a rugged south-north traverse of Aorangi Forest Park and is not for the weak. With the majority of the first 10km following stream beds, runners have to stay alert while negotiating the ankle testing rocky terrain, at the same time as trying to pick the quickest route. Four “Undulations”, an understatement if ever there was one, take competitors on an adventure through valleys dense with native bush, each with its own backcountry hut. These huts are marshalled by a veritable who’s who of Wellington mountain men and women, all of whom have competed in the race at various times and have hiked in the day before to set up. They have been known to hand out jet planes, words of advice and witticisms …and occasionally first aid. If you survive the hills, Ongaonga (stinging nettle) and the seemingly endless last undulation, you are rewarded by a long downhill to the finish at the famous Putangirua Pinnacles. Here the Picturesque campsite is well stocked with craft beer and sausages, hot off the BBQ. The family friendly environment makes it perfect for a post race picnic where competitors can compare war stories and battle wounds.
Day two start: Mangatoetoe Valley, Aorangi Undulator field Photo: Anne Rose
River Travel, Otakaha headwaters. Photo: Anne Rose
Mt Man Jamie Stewart, Pararaki Hut Marshal Photo: Anne Rose
Putangirua Pinnacles. Photo: Marlena Wasiak
Day three is the shortest of the competition at 23 km and 1600m ascent. A relative doddle on its own, it is a whole different story with two days of accumulated fatigue in the legs. With the previous days’ racing often being a war of attrition there are seldom the same number of runners toeing the line as there were on day one. Those that are left slowly trickle into the dew soaked campsite shortly after dawn for the start of the final stage. After climbing back out of the Pinnacles valley, competitors find themselves running on rugged 4wd tracks in an west – east crossing of the range. Friendships forged over the previous stages often lead to groups forming up for this final leg through the stunning hills. It’s a nice way to reflect on what has been an epic journey, as tired legs are urged up and over the last big climbs. Passing the high point of around 750m, runners are rewarded with an undulating and sometimes steep descent into the Eastern Turanganui River Valley. A number of river crossings which on a good day are well below the knees deliver you to the last climb of the day, a sidle which on tired legs seems to stretch out forever. The feeling of topping out at the road end car park brings a sense of relief and growing elation, knowing it is one short km of downhill running to your final destination. A little pinch climb up the drive to DOC’s Waikuku Lodge, heralds the finish line and the end to an extraordinary adventure.
There is no fanfare, just warm hugs and handshakes from your new mates, fellow competitors. There is no winners podium, just a patch of dirt and a circle of friends. There is a feeling of something very special shared between the intimate group of runners and their supporters, a sense of family so often absent from larger events. Quite possibly the perfect ending to the experience of a lifetime. Quite possibly the best race in Aotearoa.
Aorangi Undulator – A100 3rd-5th November 2017
Pre-start final day, Putangirua Pinnacles. Photo: Lilla Cso
Hard earned undies
Not a bad place to race… Photo: Marlena Wasiak