When you’re on the wrong side of 40, recovering from knee surgery, having never run further than five kilometres at any stage in your rapidly middle-aged life, and then someone suggests competing in a marathon in just four months time? You surely laugh. And then swiftly say no. That is unless, of course, the setting is quite possibly the most beautiful location for a marathon anywhere in the world. And you’ve swapped the full marathon for the half. And you’ve got no shame in the prospect of coming last.
So that’s how I came to be doing what a local paper would dub “the world’s slowest half marathon,” in the Cook Islands back in March. It was late last year when I got the invitation to go to the Cooks to compete in the annual “Pursuit In Paradise” series of events, held on the tiny island of Aitutaki. Spread over four days with everything from fun runs for the kids, to 10-kilometre races, right up to half and full marathons, this might be a fledgling event, but it’s not hard to see why it’s starting to attract international attention.
Aitutaki is paradise. There are plenty of places that call themselves “paradise”, but for Aitutaki, it’s never going to the run of the risk of failing to live up to the hype. Just 18-square kilometres (fractionally smaller than Auckland’s Rangitoto Island), Aitutaki is a triangular atoll and lagoon of such beauty it’s not uncommon to hear people hailing it as the single most beautiful island they’ve ever seen.
From its white sands to its popping turquoise waters that look like an Instagram filter come to life, Aitutaki has long been sought after by the likes of honeymooners and tourists who take their tropical relaxation very seriously. Then the Pursuit In Paradise came along half-a-dozen years ago to add something else to the mix: long distance running in a place that’s barely big enough to squeeze the courses in. But squeeze they did, and the result is one of the best things I’ve done in my life.
Speaking of squeezing, tearing the meniscus in my left knee in a rambunctious over-the-shoulder tennis shot gone wrong – exactly one year before doing the Pursuit In Paradise – had led to a subsequent squeezing of much of my wardrobe. That was March of 2021 with surgery that followed in July. I was heavier than I’d ever been and doubting if my slowly recovering knee was ever going to be right for the twists, turns and over-the-shoulder crowd-pleasers of tennis. I needed something else.
Wanting to shake that funk, the invitation to run a marathon in the Cook Islands seemed like the perfect motivation to regain the fitness and to combine it with a family holiday somewhere stunning. And sure, there was a fortnight or so of delusion where I thought, “Four months is enough time for me to get fit and run an entire marathon!” But a half-marathon? And a half-marathon where I can walk-jog it rather than run it? Sign me up.
This is when I learnt something I’d always suspected: most people avoid doing marathons and half-marathons because of an all or nothing misconception that assumes if you can’t run all of it, don’t bother doing any of it. Maybe it’s good that humans are wired that way if it means it facilitates the complete diet, exercise and lifestyle overhaul necessary to go from being 15-kilograms overweight and unable to jog further than 500-metres, to being fit, lean and a capable of running 42.2-kilometres.
Maybe. But there’s also something liberating about not caring what people think. Or maybe that’s just my excuse for not undertaking that full overhaul. Regardless, once I established that I was going to walk-jog my way to the finish line, I set about trying to maximise what that jogging ratio would be.
Using the app Map My Run, I developed two circuits from my house. One was 6.3-kilometres, the other exactly 10. For four months in the build up to the race, I averaged over 45-kilometres a week of walk-jogging. To give you an idea of how slow I was and still am, I started out happy if I could break an average speed of 9-minutes for my kilometre splits. Then 8-minutes 30-seconds was the goal. And by the time March rolled around, I could occasionally crack 8-minutes.
I thought this was great! And then I’d see people on Instagram who’d average 5-minutes for their splits. Oh well. They probably hadn’t had knee surgery. And they probably ate way less. And they were probably miserable bores. Or probably not! But hey, we’re all different and I was bound for the Cook Islands so ultimately I didn’t really care.
The Cooks are a 3-hour, 45-minute flight north from Auckland, with the main island of Rarotonga sitting at a latitude of 21-degrees. Summertime highs average around 29-degrees Celsius, with winter highs around 25. So it’s hot, but never crazy hot. And the most you’d ever need would be an extra layer for winter evenings.
That arrival into Rarotonga is such a perfect picture of what a tropical island should look like it almost feels computer generated as you look out the airplane window. The most-populated island in the Cook Islands, there are still only 13,000 people that make Rarotonga home. And what a home it is: 67-square kilometres of dense, mountainous jungle, ringed by sandy beaches and a reef that encompasses the island.
For the 2022 Pursuit In Paradise, Covid restrictions meant foreigners under 5-years of age could only travel to Rarotonga and not the outer islands like Aitutaki. To work around this, I had one night together with my wife Aimee and our three-year old daughter Riley in Rarotonga before flying the 50-minutes to Aitutaki on my own for two nights for my epic walk-jog. After which it was back to Raro for a final three nights together as a family. If we return next year, no such restrictions are in place.
I think we’ll have to return, and for two main reasons. One, if anything, the flight into Aitutaki is even more spectacular than Rarotonga. And two, I’ve got to try and break the magic three-hour mark! It’s the colour of the lagoon and the paper-white gleam of the sand that takes your breath away. Add to that dots of deserted islands shaded by coconut palms and the whole thing starts to resemble a lot of peoples’ idea of Heaven. Aimee and Riley need to see this.
Riley might also like to see her Daddy not cramp up at the 15-kilometre mark, though Aimee most certainly would enjoy a repeat of the images of me crossing the finish line looking like I’ve got tree trunks for legs and a carrot in an unfortunate spot. It’s my story and I’m sticking to it, but trust me, I was actually chugging along better than expected for two-thirds of the race. I was doing my walk-jog-walk-jog routine, the knee was feeling good and you know what? I was loving life!
I kept passing locals who would cheer me on and offer water and sponges, I had my sensational playlist with my specially chosen tracks, and the heat and the humidity actually seemed to aid my running. Until they didn’t. I was perspiring so much that the soles in my shoes started to slip and every stride would see drops of sweat flying from the tips of my fingers.
I was taking photos along the way because let’s not forget, this is Aitutaki, but after a while my phone’s screen was too wet from perspiration to work. Once the hamstring and calf cramps hit with six-kilometres still to go, the walk-jog became just a walk. That is, except for the final 200-metres where a small crowd willed me to do a version of what is commonly called “jogging”. There’s video footage somewhere of those final strides and I look about as athletic as a Galapagos tortoise.
Clocking in at 3-hours, 7-minutes, I thought I’d done pretty well. Good thing I hadn’t Googled average half-marathon times before the race! But it was also a good thing that not one person brought up how slow I was. In fact, everyone involved in the event, from fellow runners to the organisers to the staff at the hotel, all seemed thrilled for me that I’d completed my very first half-marathon.
Battling cramps and spasms, I slurped some fresh coconut water, downed some magnesium pills and electrolyte sachets, and decided to do what everyone else was doing and jump in the lagoon. There was a euphoria that hit me. A combination of doing what I’d set out to achieve and being so lucky to do it somewhere as surreal as Aitutaki.
Part of what makes the Pursuit In Paradise so memorable is that yes, you’re in a tropical paradise, but you’re also making your way through small villages, passing historic churches, and seeing how life is for the 1700 people who live here. Cook Islanders deserve their reputation as being some of the most warm and welcoming people you could ever wish to meet. And their backyard really is extraordinary. Hopefully next time I’ll complete the race in a time that doesn’t sound like I did the full marathon!
How To Register:
Please visit AitutakiMarathon.com for registration details about next year’s Pursuit In Paradise, taking place from March 20-23 2023.
Attempting The World’s Slowest Half Marathon:
Click here to read the Cook Islands News’ (paywalled) feature on me that yes, ran with the headline “Attempting the world’s slowest half marathon”.
Where To Stay:
The Tamanu Beach Resort is a luxury boutique with 23 bungalows right by Aitutaki’s famous lagoon. You can borrow bikes from reception to explore the island, and you’re close to shops, world-class snorkelling, the island’s best lookout (the 123-metre Maunga Pu) and the airport.
Tamanu’s restaurant does outstanding seafood as you’d expect, and I can also highly recommend the chicken green curry.
As for the bungalows themselves, there’s a large balcony and a living area in addition to the bedroom, not to mention an outdoor shower. You’re surrounded by immaculate tropical gardens and you can alternate between lagoon swims and swimming pool swims depending on your mood.
Please visit TamanuBeach.com for more.
Plan Your Cook Islands Holiday:
We travelled as guests of Cook Islands Travel and Air New Zealand. Visit CookIslands.Travel for more travel inspiration.