Once upon a time, the Coromandel Peninsula was a giant kauri grove.
Today, only pockets of the big trees remain.
On Saturday, however, 300 runners from all ends of New Zealand and the world took part in an innovative mountain-running event that is helping regenerate the giant guardians of the forest.
The runners, from six countries, started and finished the ninth annual Great Cranleigh Kauri Run, a 32km mountain run traversing the Coromandel Peninsula. While it has been mostly the presence of man that has seen the kauri groves disappear, this event helps bring them back because for every runner, the organisers plant a new kauri seedling.
Starting at Waikawau Bay on the Pacific Coast, the Kauri Run traverses the Coromandel Ranges to finish at Coromandel township on the Hauraki Gulf. The 32km route is through native bush, streams and over 800m of climbing. After this year's event, the number of Kauris planted will top 2500.
Wind and rain greeted this year's runners. The race for line honours was wide open, with Christchurch's Vajin Armstrong and Rotorua's Darren Ashmore both keen to improve on their respective runner-up slots in 2011 and 2010.
But they needed to keep an eye on 53-year-old super-vet Colin Earwaker, also from Rotorua, who won 2004's inaugural Great Cranleigh Kauri Run and has run every year and only once finished outside the top five.
It was Armstrong who set the early tempo, taking out the King of the Mountain title on Waikawau Lookout after 8km. He continued building on his lead all the way to the Coromandel township finish, where he stopped the clock in 2hrs 35min 53secs.
A full 27 minutes ticked by before Colin Earwaker crossed the line second in 3hrs 02min 56secs, with Darren Ashmore just three minutes further back in third. Earwaker's run also put him first among veterans (over-40) and masters (over-50). But the most impressive run of the day came from a 22-year-old Napier woman.
Two years ago, Ruby Muir, then just 20, came from nowhere for an impressive win in the Kauri Run. In 2012 she popped up out of nowhere again, two years older and faster, to finish second overall.
In tough conditions, Muir ran the second-fastest women's time ever. Leading from start to finish, she took out the Queen of the Mountain title and then romped away from all except Vajin Armstrong to cross the finish line 28 minutes clear of second-placed Lesley Turner-Hall (Akld) in 2hrs 54min 14secs.
Further back in the field, another standout was Huntly's Brian Smith, who at 80 was the oldest finisher in the event's history.
Along with the feature 32k distance, the Great Cranleigh Kauri Run also has 13k, 21k and 70k options. Standouts included 70k winner Kerry Suter (Cambridge), who clocked a race record 6hrs 51min 40secs to beat Dennis de Monchy (Tauranga) and Jason Good (Whakatane). In fourth place overall, Hamilton's Dawn Tuffery improved one place from last year to win the women's race.
In the 13k option, former New Zealand duathlon champion, Graeme Pearson (Rotorua), was first overall and first veteran for the fourth consecutive year in 1hr 08min 45secs.The 21k event was won by North Shore's David Allaway and Rotorua's Sarah Blake. The Great Cranleigh Kauri Run is the second of Adventure Racing Coromandel's summer events, which include the Cranleigh K2 Cycle Classic (November 2), the ARC Adventure Race (February 16-17) and the Moehau Multisport Festival (March 16). Their events benefit the Spirit of Coromandel Trust, which provides opportunities for young people to experience the outdoors.
Great Cranleigh Kauri Run
November 17 - Coromandel Peninsula
32k - Men
Vajin Armstrong, Christchurch, 2:35.53, 1; Colin Earwaker, Rotorua, 3:02.56, 2; Darren Ashmore, Rotorua, 3:06.05, 3.
32k - Women
Ruby Muir, Napier, 2:54.14, 1; Lesley Turner-Hall, Auckland, 3:22.28, 2; Jo Donnelly, Thames, 3:41.18, 3.
70k - Men
Kerry Suter, Cambridge, 6:51.40, 1; Dennis de Monchy, Tauranga, 7:40.16, 2; Jason Good, Whakatane, 8:18.51, 3.
70k - Women
Dawn Tuffery, Hamilton, 8:21.16, 1; Christine Carleton, Gisborne, 9hrs 27.00, 2.
21k - Men
David Allaway, Auckland, 2:16.40, 1; Adam Coe, 2:19.25, 2; Logan Pene, Pukekohe, 2:20.50, 3.
21k - Women
SarahBlake, Rotorua, 2:31.35, 1; Annette Morris, Auckland, 2:48.06, 2; Jenny Steer, New Plymouth, 2:49.39, 3.
13k - Men
Graeme Pearson, Rotorua, 1:08.45, 1; Beven Nel, Auckland, 1:09.37, 2; Josh Halligan, Auckland, 1:10.43, 3.
13k - Women
Hannah Lynch, Auckland, 1:17.55, 1; Maria Walsh, Te Awamutu, 1:26.47, 2=; Imke Petersen, Te Awamutu, 1:26.47, 2=.