Trail and ultra running have exploded in popularity both in New Zealand and across the globe in the last few years. Within New Zealand, there's barely a weekend without a big trail race in the calendar. Not content with the odd marathon, runners are now redefining their downtime and taking up "running holidays", which see them getting away from the crowds and into the hills, taking on epic days-long quests, all under their own steam. Vera Alves looks at the growth of this trend and what motivates people to ditch the traditional quiet holiday and put their bodies through their paces.
Many people's idea of a holiday includes a cocktail and a sea view. However, an increasingly high number of people are swapping the jandals for the running shoes and spending their hard-earned annual leave (and money) running around beautiful locations.
Aucklanders Jenny Hirst and Peter Attwood are self-confessed "active relaxers". Since taking up trail running, they've ditched the traditional beach holiday that involved sitting around doing a lot of nothing and, instead, spend their free time covering large distances on foot.
For one of their recent beach holidays, three years ago, Hirst and Attwood decided to leave the car at home and, instead of driving north to their bach at Langs Beach, they packed their backpacks to the brim and "fastpacked" it - meaning they ran and walked their way up north via the Te Araroa trail, stopping to camp along the way.
"Pete looked at the Te Araroa trail map and suggested we fastpack it – so we set off on the trail between Auckland and Waipu – with about eight to 10kgs on our backs including tent and sleeping bags. We arrived at the bach dirty and happy, 150km and five days after setting off! We plan more of the same – there is 3000km of Te Araroa trail to cover," Hirst tells the Herald .
"We've been heading north for various holidays as teenagers, with kids, etc, for many years – in a car. When I worked out you could walk there mostly on trail it seemed to be a good opportunity for an adventure," Attwood explained.
"Walking through landscape that we normally drove past at 100km per hour gave us a different perspective. The sounds, smells and different views from high on ridges... you don't get that in a car."
The couple are also regular participants in trail ultramarathon events around New Zealand and often build their holidays around those so they can take their time exploring their destination on foot.
While a few years ago the pair would be the odd ones out, these days running holidays are going through massive growth, both in New Zealand and overseas.
The reasons for this boom are varied and it is hard to speculate on what exactly is making people turn to this type of "active relaxation" but many suspect our "desk-bound" jobs and increasingly sedentary lifestyle may be contributing factors, as more and more people rebel against the conveniences and luxuries of modern life and seek a break from it all, to reconnect with their wilder side.
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There is an increasing number of people travelling around New Zealand, and even from overseas, specifically for running holidays.
Several of them are centered around one particular running event.
The Tarawera Ultramarathon, which takes place in Rotorua every February, injected more than $2 million into the local economy, and a report shows the rest of New Zealand benefited by an extra $2 million .
This is because more than 2,000 runners took part in the race, with a large chunk of those being foreigners, who stay on for a holiday in the country.
"International runners were from 38 countries and each spent more than twice as much as each domestic runner while they stay in the Rotorua area. On average, each runner brought two extra people with them and stayed three nights in Rotorua," Managing Director of IRONMAN Oceania Dave Beeche told the Bay of Plenty Times .
The event generated more than 12,000 bed nights for Rotorua and an additional 7,000 bed nights for the rest of New Zealand.
Malcolm and Sally Law, directors of Running Wild and Wild Things, New Zealand's trail running club, say there is no doubt trail running holidays are on the rise.
Their Running Wild tours - mostly centered around races such as the Routeburn Classic, the Shotover Moonlight Marathon or the Old Ghost Road - sell out without even being advertised, with people looking to add more trail exploration to their trip for the race.
"I think this is largely a result of the huge increase in the number of people running trails and the great community that has built up around that - people just want to be a part of the scene and mix with others like themselves," Malcolm says.
According to Isaac Walker, who operates RunAways Trail Running Tours in the South Island, the growth presents exciting opportunities not just for those in the trail running business, but for the hospitality and tourism industry as a whole.
The typical client for one of these tours, he says, has "some disposable income and a decent fitness base".
"They usually travel alone or with a friend/partner. They predominantly are looking for something a little different and not an event. Our participants are predominately Australian and surprisingly females aged between 35-50," Walker adds.
The fact that running tours don't have a competitive nature is also something that appeals to many runners, especially mid-and-back of the pack type athletes who just enjoy being out there without necessarily clocking out the fastest times.
"The most common reason people choose our tours is that there is a relaxed atmosphere with no stress. They are not a run training camp with lectures and seminars," Walker says.
"The focus is on providing the participant with an amazing experience and memory, not to smash a personal best or run a certain distance as with perhaps an event."
For Hirst and Attwood, having the logistics of the holiday all sorted out for them is one of the most attractive aspects of this type of break.
"As busy people, having your itinerary and accommodation and meals and entry all sorted for you is fantastic, well worth the cost. It really enhances the experience, and you have all the good inside knowledge of your hosts as well," Hirst says.
Just because it involves getting dirty, it doesn't mean it can't be a little bit fancy.
Chris Ord, who runs Tour the Trails, has been organising overseas running tours for years and says there truly is something for everyone.
For Ord, an ultrarunner himself, the idea for Tour de Trails came precisely from his desire to combine a bit of R&R with his running exploits.
"The idea for Tour de Trails began sometime in 2012 following a journalism assignment to Bhutan, where I was to cover a mix of adventure pursuits - mountain biking, trail running, trekking, paddling - mixed with high end, six-star luxury accommodation and treatments," he recalls.
"Think massages, wine lists, hot stone baths, sumptuous rooms with valley views, all enjoyed post a trail run up to the famous Tiger's Nest Monastery and then a mountain bike back down.
"While my aching body soothed itself in that spa, I figured I was of an age [36 at the time] that I no longer had to feel guilty about a little indulgence mixed with my adventure forays. And I started conceiving a trip right there in Bhutan that would use a multi-day trail running mission in the high altitude Himalayas to link two of the six-star resorts I was staying in while on assignment. The result was a 15-day trail run tour of Bhutan and Tour de Trails was born."
Since then, Ord has also designed trail running trips in England, across Australia and even in Croatia, which he hosts every year to a group of delighted runners from all over the globe.
One of his most popular tours is a days-long run across England, stopping at various pubs along the way. His new tour in Croatia combines trail running and a spot of sailing, which he says always hits the mark as well.
"There is growth in experiential tourism in general and in particular 'transformational travel' - travel that challenges those undertaking a journey not just physically but also mentally," Ord says.
"Gone are the days of cocktails on beaches being enough to recharge the batteries. Today, people want something more meaningful. Something that touches the soul a little deeper, because people want to feel again."
Auckland ultrarunner Tago Mharapara couldn't agree more. A university lecturer by day, and a father of three small children, Mharapara spends whatever spare time he gets out on the trails. His wife is not a trail runner but he says she is fully supportive of his physical pursuits as she understands the value to his wellbeing.
The Mharapara family recently spent a holiday in Nelson, built around Mharapara's Old Ghost Road race, an 85km ultramarathon on the track of the same name, on top of the South Island.
For the ultrarunner, it's about family fun but also about logistics.
"For any event I'd like to do now that is more than a night away from family, it's better for me to figure out how I can take my entire family with me because it's unfair for me to expect my wife to do the heavy lifting when I'm not there," he says.
"I could have gone alone but it's easier to see if the family is willing to go. And they've got to have something to do while they are there, especially on race day when you're not around," he says.
"I don't have any expectation for them to come and cheer me on. It's about going somewhere new for all of us."
Mharapara says a running holiday is not the oxymoron a lot of people assume it is.
"For a lot of us, running is therapeutic, it's how we relax. We know what running gives us. It's quiet space, it's alone time, it's unplugging. It's like a vacation on a vacation. The travel component, well... you're just getting more bang for your buck. You can go to many places and lie down but this is about exploring."
He believes this pursuit of tough challenges during downtime is merely a case of people opting for a different kind of happiness and personal satisfaction - something the traditional R&R cannot provide.
"There's hedonic happiness, which is maximising pleasure and minimising pain and then there's eudaimonic happiness, which involves deriving contentment and happiness from doing something you put lots of effort into," he says.
Running when he could have his feet up with a beer in hand is just chasing that eudaimonic happiness (and he still doesn't say no to the beer afterwards).
Ron Brazelton and his partner, Kiwi ultrarunner Anna Frost, have also built a business from taking people on adventurous running holidays. Their focus with Trail Run Adventures is on exploring places the majority of people would never even dream of visiting.
"Currently our most popular destinations are Madeira [an island in Portugal] and Bhutan. Most people have not heard about Madeira, and it is one of the most beautiful places in the world with amazing trails.
"Bhutan is a more adventurous expedition style trip, where we run over 100 miles on the famous Snowman Trek. We are the only company [with partner Tour de Trails] doing running trips in Bhutan. It is one of the most pristine environments around and still has very few tourists."
Brazelton says the business of running holidays will continue to increase as people continue to seek more adventurous pursuits. While the core demographic remains single people, they also get a few spouses of runners who go along to hike and enjoy the other activities and the food.
"Hiking trips have and will always be popular, and running trips are kind of just a more advanced version of those trips," he says.
"But with every business, I believe that to continue good growth you will need to adapt to the market and sometimes even build a new market. That's where we are at the moment, deciding what is the next amazing adventures that we can offer those that not only love running but lots of adventure."
Hirst and Attwood doubt they'll ever spend a holiday lounging around doing nothing again.
"We see a whole lot of New Zealand that many New Zealanders never see, connect with the landscape, and learn as much as we can about the places we visit," Hirst says.
Attwood dreams of exploring the Colorado trails in America (and all its craft breweries along the way) while Hirst has her sights on a trail running holiday in the French Alps.
For now, they'll continue saving up their annual leave to explore a bit more of the New Zealand wilderness on foot, one muddy step - and a cheeky beer or two - at a time.