Runners and walkers of all abilities converge on the Wanganui and Marton region today for one of the country's oldest and most popular relay and ultramarathon events.
The Marton to Wanganui Relay has been conducted by Wanganui Harrier Club since 1931 and is a team or individual event covering 66.3km along the back route from Marton to Wanganui.
Athletes, who range from the elite to the very social, can run or walk as an individual or as two, five and up to 10 person teams.
The individual option for the ultramarathon distance was introduced in 2002 when the event moved from State Highway 3 to the back roads as a response to declining interest and safety.
Now the annual event attracts around 300 to 400 athletes, mainly from around the lower North Island, to compete on the undulating countryside.
Walker Andrew Shelley has competed seven times and holds the individual record in 7:49:31 achieved in the 2008 event.
"I am not going out to break any records this year," said the defending champion, who is preparing for the Sri Chinmoy 12-Hour Four-Person Teams Relay in Auckland on October 2.
Shelley competed two weeks ago in the Great Naseby and explained that walking 66.3km today is part of his endurance training.
The 41-year-old, who blogs the results from many of the ultramarathon events in New Zealand, wishes he could still run and has turned to walking because of injuries.
He loves walking long distance and believes the camaraderie of the Marton to Wanganui event is what makes it special.
"It takes huge effort and concentration to walk at that pace for a prolonged period of time and I really enjoy that challenge," said Shelley, who walked 80km at the Naseby.
"The relay team aspect of the Wanganui event makes it very friendly and you get plenty of support along the way - that can make all the difference when you are really tired."
In the walk the Manawatu Striders and Magic teams have dominated in recent years, continually lowering the course record.
The Magic are the defending champions after winning last year with a time of 6:36:37.
Hawera Harriers and Wanganui Harriers have been the dominant run teams in the past few years but last year the Hutt Valley Harriers came on board in 2009 and won the WL Young Rosebowl Trophy with a time of 4:06:40. Andrew Russell won the individual run last year in 5:54:48 and is looking forward to defending his title today.
At the other end of the rankings, leaning on the social side of the event, is Wanganui Mayor Michael Laws who has participated in the event for the past two years.
"We had a team called 'Mayoral Madness' in last year - a mixed team that proudly finished last but finished," said Laws.
"I won't be competing this year and they wanted me to present the award for last place but believe it or not I am not available because I am playing in a game of rugby."
Laws will be playing for the Mayoral XV who will take on the Parliamentary rugby team as a curtain-raiser for the Wanganui versus West Coast Heartland Championship match.
"It is fantastic," he said of the relay race, adding his team almost died on some of the hills last year.
"People come from all over the North Island for events like this and the sad thing is that more runners don't know about it.
"The relay aspect makes it a really social weekend and it is unique in that you cross some beautiful land and see some places you otherwise would not have seen."
The event is organised by local long distance enthusiast Roger Morrison who was the 28th person in this country to be inducted into the 100 marathon club.
He is still running and has completed 110 marathons in his career with his fastest time 3:00:52 and his slowest 4:28:00.
"It is a bit mad," said Morrison about his career of marathon running.
"It is not to be recommended."
But he is quick to point out that he has a long way to go to catch local running legend Mike Stewart who has run almost 500 marathons.
Morrison explained that with the inherent difficulties of running the event on a main highway it was an easy choice to shift the event to a back country route that extended the course out to 66km.
Before the changes the event was a "nightmare to run" and the number of participants dropped to under 100. But since the change of location in 2001 almost 400 athletes keep coming back for the event that is only $15 to enter.
"We don't offer all the bells and whistles but it is affordable for everyone and the most important part of the event it the social atmosphere," said Morrison
"It is a chance to experience a quiet, pretty, off-the-beaten-track part of New Zealand and we finish off with a beer and a laugh."
* The Marton to Wanganui Relay has been conducted by Wanganui Harrier Club since 1931 and is a team or individual event covering 66.3km along the back route from Marton to Wanganui.
* The individual option for the ultramarathon distance was introduced in 2002 when the event moved from State Highway 3 to the back roads as a response to declining interest and safety.By Peter Thornton