On a day to hearten the New Zealand running community and offer a glimmer of hope to the world, the 2020 Rotorua Marathon, one of the world’s first mass participation road races since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, took place on Saturday (26).
The rescheduled race, which was originally due to take place on 2 May, attracted about 2000 runners who competed over a range of distances from the full marathon, half marathon, 10km and 5.5km.
The race will barely resonate from a global perspective. On Saturday the men’s winner Michael Voss recorded a time of 2:31:14 and the women’s victor, Alice Mason, posted 2:50:45, albeit on a hilly and demanding course.
However, the symbolism of hundreds of people coming together to compete in a road race should not be underestimated and hopefully will usher in a period where similar events are possible, not just in New Zealand but around the globe.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, dozens of marathons around the world have been either cancelled and postponed for health and safety reasons.
Athletics New Zealand, the organisers of the event, were themselves forced to postpone the original May date because of virus restrictions at that time. However, they were determined to host the event in 2020, so put in a rescheduled date.
The country has been widely praised for its excellent handling of the pandemic with low death and infection rates.
New Zealand underwent more than 100 days of no community transmission only for an outbreak of the virus to hit Auckland, the country’s largest city, in mid-August which led to a tightening of restrictions.
For several weeks, the event was surrounded by doubt. But a decision by the government to lift restrictions a little under two weeks out from race day gave the 56th edition of the race the green light.
The complex environment created by a pandemic has created bumps in the road for organisers. With restrictions around Auckland still in place, runners from the Auckland region to the north could not feature in the event, which naturally impacted on the total numbers of competing athletes.
The decision to exclude runners from New Zealand's largest city saddened Athletics NZ CEO Pete Pfitzinger but he was delighted the event could go ahead.
“Since the global pandemic we have seen the cancellation of dozens of major marathons and half-marathons around the world,” said Pfitzinger. “We are really fortunate to be able to host an event of this magnitude – one of the first mass participation events to proceed since the outbreak of the coronavirus.
“This is always a big event for the New Zealand running community, which has taken on even greater significance this year because of the lack of racing.
“We hope that by staging the event we have shown what is possible and we hope that similar races will once again become commonplace not only in New Zealand but also around the world.”
The Rotorua Marathon, which covers an entire lap of Lake Rotorua, is one of Australasia’s oldest marathons and dates back to 1965. This year’s event provided the usual mix of serious athletes, mid-packers, novices, back-markers and charity runners all competing for a full range of personal goals.
Yet the final word should go to Alice Mason, a 33-year-old doctor, who secured a hat-trick of victories.
“The race going ahead gives people a bit of hope,” she explains. “I know personally that I have had a plan A, a plan B and so many alternative racing plans this year, that I’ve got through the whole alphabet! So, for organisers to put on a successful event within the health guidelines sets a good example.
“We are lucky to have kept the virus under control (in New Zealand). It shows our resilience. To be able to put on the Rotorua Marathon was pretty special."
Steve Landells for World Athletics