For most of us, a 42km marathon is extreme. For ultramarathon runners, that’s just stage one of five. Photographer and filmmaker Struan Purdie covered the final Alps to Ocean Ultra event last year in the South Island and was blown away by the sheer determination and strength he witnessed. He shares the story of the week…
It was 2pm. The final two competitors hobbled towards stage three’s finish line. One of them seemed to have suffered a back injury.
He was bent almost double and shuffling forward painfully. They had just completed a 90km stage, which they’d started at 6am the previous morning.
The timer was approaching 31 ½ hours. The other runners and volunteers erupted in applause as they approached. I rushed forward with my camera as they crossed the finish line. Emotions were running high. The worst part – these guys were only half-way through this week-long running race. 326km is a long way. It’s even further if you have to do it on foot.
The Alps to Ocean Ultra started in 2018 as the first staged ultra race in New Zealand. Brutal is one word to describe it. Crazy is another. The race starts at the foot of Aoraki Mount Cook and follows the Alps to the Ocean Trail past high country lakes and over mountains, finally finishing at the sleepy coastal town of Oamaru.
The whole thing takes seven days with runners completing between 30 and 90km per day. At the end of each stage, volunteers set up tents and provide hot water for the athletes’ dehydrated meals. Each runner can bring only 16kg of gear for the week including food, clothing and a sleeping bag. Needless to say, every calorie is weighed and counted with very few luxuries afforded.
The not-for-profit race was created by Michael Sandri after he competed in an ultra race overseas. Seeing potential for a similar event here in New Zealand, he got to work. Establishing a stunning yet ruthless course that would push athletes to the absolute limit took countless months of organising volunteers and sponsors and speaking to local councils and private landowners. In its first year the Alps to Ocean Ultra sold out, with runners from 16 different countries registering. Its raging success can be attributed largely to a dedicated group of close friends that Michael pulled together to run the event. However, three years after it began, it was time to call it a day. Michael announced 2020 would be the final race. This was partly due to the time commitment it demanded from the volunteers, although it was fair to say everyone was gutted it was coming to an end. Of course, this made last year’s event even more special.
My role for the week was to capture footage for a documentary on this iconic race. Stage one started with 119 excited runners gathering at Mt Cook’s airport. The air was thick with nervous energy. Some had competed in previous events. Others were first timers with no idea of the high and lows that awaited them over the next seven days. It was a quick helicopter ride over the Tasman River to the start line, and then they were off. The first stage led the runners along the edge of Lake Pukaki, which meant weaving between gravel roads, high country farmland and rocky lakefront. At the end of the 55km day, everyone was in good spirits despite a few tired bodies.
The following day saw the runners up early and on their way to Lake Ohau, which was 51km away in temperatures exceeding 30 degrees. People started falling apart throughout the day. Compounding fatigue, blisters and mental anguish forced several competitors to pull out; however, the hardship of stage two was just a warm up for what was to come.
The next morning, the runners were up before dawn preparing for stage three – a brutal 90km route from Lake Middleton to Loch Laird below the Benmore Dam. Most of the runners wouldn’t finish until well into the early hours of the next day and many would be on their feet well over 24 hours. Although some competitors touted this as their favourite stage, numerous others were forced to retire with exhaustion, dehydration and even hallucinations. One runner swore he saw a herd of elephants just before the clay cliffs. Another stood in a stream for 10 minutes shaking the mud off his shoe only to discover it was his right hand he’d been waving around and not his foot. By the end of stage three, the medical tent was heaving with wary athletes, shredded feet and aching bodies.
The final three stages led the runners down the Waitaki Valley with more long days and some big climbs. A fast-paced jet boat ride at the end of stage four was a highlight for many, though the kilometres were clearly starting to take their toll. During these final days of the race, I interviewed many of the runners to understand why they did it. Some were out to simply prove they could. Others were the type that just couldn’t sit still. Then there were those that were clearly addicted to the challenge of ultra running.
On the final day as the runners started trickling across the finish line, I was struck by what the human body can achieve with raw determination and mental toughness. After 326km of physical abuse, the air was buzzing with emotion, not only from the athletes but also among the volunteers. For many of them, this race community had become a family. The fact that it was all over was now sinking in. As the final runner approached, everyone assembled to cheer her in. Alex Senior had competed in the previous two events but was forced to withdraw both times. As she neared the finish line, the rest of the competitors held their hands high in a human tunnel, clapping her in with hoots of applause. Participating in a race like the Alps to Ocean is a massive feat. Getting to the end in one piece is simply incredible.
The people I met during my seven days of filming the race were utterly inspiring. It left me wondering how they managed to achieve what they did. At the end of the documentary Michael sums it up perfectly: “Everything starts from a thought or a dream. If you have a drive and you want to do something, then you go and do it. And if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t matter. It’s what you get out of the journey that you’ve been on.”