What started out as an idea tossed about by a few runners over a bar leaner at the pub in 1994 has turned into one of New Zealand’s iconic mountain races.
Sue and Steve Lyttle and Bill and Maris Thompson did the maths around what was needed, and in January 1995, 122 runners faced the starter’s gun for the inaugural Holdsworth-Jumbo over 24 km of the tortuous Tararua Range terrain.
Only four “survivors” from the first running – Rob McCrudden , Kelly Holland , Colin Boyd  and Owen Rowse  – have competed in all 29 races. The men were all from road-running backgrounds and were cajoled into entering by Sue Lyttle or her friends in an effort to convert the ‘asphalt junkies’ into mountain goats.
Of the four, three have had heart attacks, and one has had cancer, but despite that and the multiple ankle injuries and other “war wounds”, they keep coming back. This year, though, only Holland and McCrudden will tackle the full distance, while Rowse will contest the shorter Hooper Loop, and Boyd is sidelined with injury.
Initially, the race was contested over the Holdsworth-Jumbo direction until 2004. From 2005–13, it raced in the opposite Jumbo-Holdsworth direction, and then after that, it was held in both directions. On Saturday, though, the athletes will only race Jumbo-Holdsworth.
The inaugural race was won by Kadmiel Maseyk from Hamilton in two hours, 31 minutes, and nine seconds, and Lower Hutt’s Antonia Wood was the first woman home in 2:18:28.
One of the challenges within the race is to reach Powell Hut, or Jumbo Hut, in under one hour, a feat which several men have achieved but done by only one woman, the indomitable Jill Westenra, the winner of four Coast to Coast individual titles, in 1999 when she reached Powell Hutt in 59:48.
Organiser Andrew Thompson first ran in the race in 1997 and has seen many changes over the years, the most noticeable being the way people find out and enter. Instead of seeing a poster or hearing word of mouth from a friend, information is freely available online and entering is now done online as opposed to sending in a paper entry and cheque, and that has opened up the race and attracted a broader spectrum of competitors.
Although there have been improvements to the tracks, Thompson said the course is still revered because it’s tough and unrelenting but also just easy enough to complete in about the time you could run a marathon.
Three hundred runners will hit the hills in Saturday’s 30th edition of the race, and Thompson is hoping the weather doesn’t become a factor with strong winds forecast.
Thomas Barnes, the winner of the WUU2K [Wellington Urban UItra] marathon and the A100, a three-day ultramarathon in Wellington and Southern Wairarapa, is favoured to take out the senior men, with the major threats likely to come from high-level orienteer Thomas Callan, national secondary school cross-country representative 17-year-old Max Doherty, and veteran Dan Clendon, a previous winner.
2021 winner Ali Wilson is the probable frontrunner in the women’s race, with Genevieve Coffey and Wairarapa runner Rachel Shackleton expected to pose the biggest challenge.
Runners in the Jumbo-Holdsworth will start at 8am, with the Hooper Loop starting at 9am.