He aha te mea nui o te ao
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata

What is the most important thing in the world?

It is the people, it is the people, it is the people


It's been a tough few years hasn't it? News cycle after news cycle, we seem to get flooded with reminders of how flawed humans can be. It's hard not to get down about humanity when every bit of news is bad news.

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Fear not, I've got just the antidote to all this.

I found my lost faith in humanity not in a church but at the finish line of the Tarawera Ultramarathon last weekend.

Thirty-six hours were about to tick by, marking the cut off for anyone doing the race.

With less than 10 minutes before the cut off, three men were still out there, running 100 mile (160km) in the race of their lives.

Adrian Henry, Den Rollings and Dave Byrne were their names.

I haven't forgotten their names because I've had their faces etched on my mind since Sunday afternoon when I watched them coming towards that finish line, after nearly 36 hours of running through the bush and the forest.

Every time I've gone for a short run since then – and I've gone running since then precisely because of them – I've thought of the grit and resilience they showed and it put all my usual whining into perspective. In every run since then, and I suspect every run for a while, they have made me go further.

The winners of the 100 mile race, the incredible Jeff Browning and Camille Herron, had finished hours ago – the day before, in fact. They'd gone home, had showers, dinner, breakfast and lunch by the time Adrian, Den and Dave came in.

Adrian Henry with race director Tim Day, at the finish line. Photo / Supplied/Photos4Sale
Adrian Henry with race director Tim Day, at the finish line. Photo / Supplied/Photos4Sale

These three men knew this. They knew they were the last out on the field, they knew how, timing wise, their performances could not compare to those of the front of the pack, who got to sleep in their own beds through the night while these men battled through the darkness of the trails.

If this had been a race in the technical sense of the word, like the sprints we did at school, these three men would have lost.

But this is no ordinary race.

These men didn't have the speed to finish faster but they had the endurance to keep going further than they ever thought they would go.

With less than 10 minutes before the 36th hour rolled in (which would effectively mark them as a DNF – Did Not Finish), a crowd gathered around the finish line.

The tension was palpable. There were all kinds of people there, from those who would never even contemplating running 160km in a row to people who'd done exactly that, showered and rushed back to welcome these men in. People from all walks of life, united in their hope that these men would make it, that they'd come in before the clock ran out.

With every minute that ticked by, our hopes of watching them finish faded a little more. It was particularly heartbreaking for Adrian and Den, who I knew were out there seeking redemption, after failing to finish the race last year. Still, one foot in front of the other, they fought.

For 36 hours, their bodies completely shattered but their unwavering spirits intact, they kept on going. When they thought they couldn't go any longer, they'd take another step further and, just like that, progress. Every step a step closer to the finish.

What else is there to do when your body is already broken? The answer, these men showed, is not to quit. When everything gets tough, you become tougher than it all. When you are already this broken, you might as well keep going.

An emotional moment for race founder Paul Charteris. Photo / Supplied/Photos4Sale
An emotional moment for race founder Paul Charteris. Photo / Supplied/Photos4Sale

With the clock about to run out, they approach the finishing chute and the crowd erupts.

The nervousness morphs into excitement and we scream their names like we're all long lost friends, our voices helping carry them in. Every single one of us so desperately want these men to finish.

Adrian and Den, who are both in their 60s, appear together in the distance, their families rushing them along.

They had left the last checkpoint, at 155km in the Redwoods, not long before that. They had to really put their foot down and get some speed for the final 5km.

It seemed impossible and then they did it.

THEY DID IT.

This has got to be one of the most emotional finishes to an ultramarathon ever! Adrian Henry and Den Rollings, YOU DID IT! With about 4 minutes before the cutoff, they gave it their all and crossed that finish line together. It was redemption for both of them, after not finishing last year. Don't think there was a dry eye around when these two made it back from this journey. WHAT A MOMENT! Congratulations Adrian and Den. Feet up now! #taraweraultra Video: Steven Blackburn

Posted by Tarawera Ultramarathon on Saturday, 9 February 2019

Race director Tim Day runs alongside them, pacing them into the finish line. You can feel a wave of excitement and relief suddenly come over everyone who'd been nervously pacing the area awaiting the men.

The applause goes on for longer than anything you've heard lately. Paul Charteris, founder and race director of the Tarawera, cannot hold back the tears as he greets the men.

Tim and Adrian share a long, much awaited hug. As part of his buildup for the Tarawera 100 Miles, Adrian had spent a long time out clearing those trails. Hours and hours of helping prepare the path for the race of his life.

Dave is not far behind. The very last person to finish the 160km, he had a few short minutes before cutoff and he refused to let that daunting prospect stop him.

Under his own steam, his body covered 160km of rough terrain. One day, one night and nearly a whole other day later, he is finally done. He can stop running.

His speed is not his claim to fame but his grit is. When the legs wanted to stop, his brain kept him going.

Dave Byrne, what an honour to welcome you home with about 3 minutes to spare! The last finisher of the 2019 Tarawera 100 miler. That's grit! #taraweraultra

Posted by Tarawera Ultramarathon on Saturday, 9 February 2019

Look wherever you want in sports pages everywhere, browse the rugby section, have a look in the cricket one: you will not find the mental strength and physical fitness these ordinary men, with day jobs they were probably back to on Tuesday, displayed over the weekend.

Quietly heroic, slowly and steadily, these men are undoubtedly some of the strongest Kiwis in the country.

Dave Byrne, proudly wearing his Pounamu, simbolising his 100 mile journey. Photo / Supplied/Photos4Sale
Dave Byrne, proudly wearing his Pounamu, simbolising his 100 mile journey. Photo / Supplied/Photos4Sale

Out on that course, over 160km, every single person displayed the best of the human spirit (not just the athletes, don't even get me started on the 700+ volunteers at the Tarawera Ultra, who deserve a whole article of their own).

Many wonder why they do it – many even question their sanity in putting their bodies through something like this. But they don't need to justify it to anyone.

The pursuit of the limits of human nature is as primal as it gets. It's in all of us, no matter how much modern life tries to bash it out. We do it for us and we do it for our people. We've got to keep teaching them to chase the impossible.

Ultrarunning legend Jeff Browning, who won the race outright in an astoundingly fast time, told me a couple of days earlier that, when things get hard out there, he thinks of his wife and children.

"What would I be teaching my children if I quit when things get hard?" he said.

He's made a career out of racing some of the toughest races in the world and yet, when times get tough, he draws his strength from the same place as everyone else: his people.

Front or back of the pack, big sponsorship deal or cheap cotton socks, stripped down to our very essence, we're all the same. We want to find out where our limits lie, we want to go right up near those limits and then take a step further, right past them.

Adrian and Den ran together through the night. Photo / Supplied/Photos4Sale
Adrian and Den ran together through the night. Photo / Supplied/Photos4Sale

We do it for us and we do it for our people. That's the strength of the human spirit.

Now as for the limit? We haven't quite found that yet.

A film is currently being produced about Adrian Henry's inspiring journey of redemption at the Tarawera 100 Miler, directed by award-winning filmmaker Aaron Smart. It'll be out later in the year.