Running a Marathon and Celebrating Maori Culture in Hamilton

On November 29th 2015, Ivo crossed the finish line of his first full 42 km marathon in Panama City, crying. For the first time in his life he was overwhelmed by a mixture of total exhaustion, physical pain and a sort of inexplicable sad quiet euphoria.

One year and a half later, he joined another 42km race in Hamilton, New Zealand. This time, there were no tears and Ivo enjoyed every moment from start to finish. Three hours and 55 minutes of flawless, painless, glorious running.

Ivo running the Kirikiriroa marathon 2017. Photo by photos4sale.com

It’s mid-March, 2017, nice sunny weather. We are driving from Mangawhai through Auckland towards  Hamilton together with Mel, who came from Pert in Australia to New Zealand for a few days to accompany Ivo in his second full marathon.

Maya, Mel and Ivo in New Zealand.

Mel is Ivo’s running mentor and one of his best friends. We met Mel and his wife Caryn aboard yacht ‘Passages’ (a beautiful teal color Island Packet) in the Caribbean and sailed together from island to island for many months. We share many unforgettable memories.

Ivo and Mel also share a passion for running- a sort of a hobby, or mania, that only runners understand. Mel is a few years older than Ivo, born in Namibia, now living in Australia. He has many running races under his belt including a 90K ultra marathon in Africa, and he initiated Ivo in the world of running. It includes training, gear, safety and food.

Mel and Ivo aboard Fata Morgana getting ready to go for a morning run in Mangawhai, New Zealand.

Can you imagine training for a marathon while sailing and living on a boat? Getting up at 4 a.m. , before the burning tropical sun becomes unbearable, kayaking to shore and running between 10 and 40 kilometers (one to four hours), often in circles on tiny islands with no paved roads, with dogs chasing you and little  kids running, screaming and laughing after you; trying to follow a strict running program interrupted by days, sometimes weeks of ocean passages; eating whatever stores you have on the boat or local foods and not having access to the recommended runner’s diet; using the same old shoes even when they are finished and you need new ones, but there is no place to buy new good running shoes in a thousand nautical miles radius.

You have to be really passionate about running and extremely disciplined to train for a marathon while sailing and living on a boat.

We buy chicken and pasta- lean meat and carbohydrates, which we prepare in the hotel. Mel booked a nice double room with kitchen and TV near the Hamilton Gardens- a big beautiful city park where the marathon will start early tomorrow morning. The guys spend the rest of the day resting and eating pasta. We go to bed early.

Saturday, March 18. It’s still completely dark in the park. The runners have gathered. The kiwi people are fun-loving friendly folks and joy is in the air. Many of the participants, men and women, are wearing orange tutu skirts and orange T-shirts, as if coming out of a techno concert. The race begins before sunrise. It will take about four hours for Ivo and Mel to return. Some of the other runners and walkers will cross the finish line much later.

At the start of the marathon

Mel at the finish line. Photo by photos4sale.com

ivo at the finish line. Photo by photos4sale.com

Instead of sitting around and waiting for four hours, Maya and I hitch a ride back to town, and from there we take the bus to Ngaruawahia- a small village half an hour drive north of Hamilton. Another race is taking place there this same day- the annual Turangawaewae Regatta and we are not going to miss it. We will miss Ivo and Mel crossing the finish line- the most glorious moment and the greatest achievement in every marathon runner’s life, but we will witness one of New Zealand’s deepest cultural events- the best waka kopapa racing in the country.

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Waka kopapa are single-hull paddling canoes with great proportions and unique design, traditionally used by the Maori people for war. Built from giant totara tree trunks, with exquisite tribal carvings at the front and the back, some wakas were up to 30 meters long, holding up to 100 warriors. These were sacred vessels used for epic battles.

Waka kopapa- Maori war canoe

We arrive at the event just in time for the waka parade and watch from the banks of the mighty Waikato River as five long boats take off. The men in each waka are dressed in their traditional tribal Maori piupiu, a kilt-type garment made from dried flax. Many have body and face tattoos and they all look fierce.

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Maya and I have time to roam around the river bank with many stands selling traditional food, carvings and other Maori art and crafts before the wakas return. We get traditional ‘mokos’ or face tattoos, which for women are limited to the chin. There are hundreds of visitors, the majority local Maori families from the near-by communities, gathered to celebrate their ancestral culture and history.

Maya and Mira with Moko Tattoos

More and more people arrive as the culmination of the Regatta approaches. Four hours have passed since the start of the Kirikiriroa Marathon and soon Ivo and Mel join us on the loan in front of the small stage on the shore of the Waikato River to watch the return of the wakas. The runners look tired, their bodies are tense as if the juices have dried up inside them, but also very happy and proud.

  • It was a good run. I felt great. I didn’t even feel tired at the end and could keep running a lot more.- said Ivo with an expression of serenity and content.

At the Turangawaewae regatta

A thunderous chorus of hundreds of bare-chested, bearded, hairy, tattooed warriors rowing and chanting rhythmically in perfect synchrony as they approach down the river is a mighty sight to behold, followed by the traditional Maori Kapa Haka performed by each of the waka teams.

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There are no words that can describe the Maori haka, as there are no words to describe the powerful might, the tremendous energy and awesome devastating force of an apocalyptic storm. You feel it with all your senses as it hits you, invading all the space around you, penetrating inside your chest like a thunder from another world. The Maori haka is a natural phenomenon.

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The Maori haka is a custom of high social importance and an ancient living art form. A spiritual dance and song performed by groups of people to welcome guests or warn the enemy, to pay respects in honor of the living or the dead. It is still proudly performed today at every event throughout New Zealand, in public institutions and private gatherings, thought to kids of all backgrounds in every school in the country, and in all Maori families and communities.

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The hakas, imitating oral narratives, transmit feelings of personal and historical events, and transfer knowledge and tradition through music. The war dances aim to intimidate psychologically their enemies with strong loud chanting and roaring, stomping, and fierce expressions. The first Europeans who witnessed them got terrified and described them as ‘ferocious and vigorous’.

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Joseph Banks, who accompanied James Cook on his first voyage to New Zealand in 1769, later recorded, ‘The War Song and dance consists of Various contortions of the limbs during which the tongue is frequently thrust out incredibly far and the orbits of the eyes enlarged so much that a circle of white is distinctly seen round the Iris: in short nothing is omitted which can render a human shape frightful and deformed, which I suppose they think terrible.’

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Later, the Christian missionaries tried to eradicate and prohibited the haka dances and many other Maori or non-Christian traditions and customs, and replace them with harmonic hymns, like in the Polynesian islands. But the Maori people secretly kept their traditions alive and in the 19th century they were revived. When Queen Victoria’s son Prince Albert arrived in New Zealand for a visit in 1869, at the wharf in Wellington, he was greeted by a vigorous haka. The Wellington Independent reported, ‘The excitement of the Maoris becomes uncontrollable. They gesticulate, they dance, they throw their weapons wildly in the air, while they yell like fiends let loose. But all this fierce yelling is of the most friendly character. They are bidding the Duke welcome.’

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It is like that today still. There’s yelling and fierce shouting, mean expressions and terrible gestures, to let us know we are welcome, as long as we respect: the land, the people, the tradition. Ours or not.

Kids watching the haka performance at Turangawaewae Regatta

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Watch the short YouTube video with footage from the Turangawaewae Regatta and Haka performances Road Trip in North Island

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