Waiting for the race to start again

Like countless local events and businesses, the Vineyard Half in Blenheim is about so much more than money. It’s about the often hidden ties that bind communities together, writes Allan Ramsay.

Week two of lockdown and now the layers of what holds all our rural communities together are slowly being peeled back one by one under the brutal surgery of Covid-19.

For many Kiwis passing through any given small town, it’s a road sign, a 50kph restriction, a shop and if you’re lucky, some public toilets and a café.

For those who live there, that Four Square store, that pub, that contractor’s yard and that tourist café which have operated, often under the same family name forever, are what spring to mind when the word “business” is mentioned. They are brick and mortar and something you can see and touch.

They are where we come from, they are what we remember, they’re our place and what we are, our turangawaewae. Right now, no one wants to think about what our place will look like a year on, so instead we prefer to hope.

And then there are the new, non-traditional, 21st century businesses that are run from farmhouse kitchens, garden sheds and other unseen places, all a long way from the highway.

Many of them were only able to be grown by the internet, the reach, spread and speed of which is ironically being mirrored by a mindless, lethal virus which is ruthlessly cutting these enterprises down.

And, as those of us who live well beyond the city limits well know, rural enterprises are about so much more than dollars and cents.

Chris Shaw, who in a previous incarnation was a former Outward Bound instructor, and his partner Anna, a former youth worker, have been running Blenheim’s Vineyard Half marathon in partnership with the Saint Clair winery for nine years.

Chris Shaw, co-founder of the Vineyard Half. Photo: Supplied

Like our bricks and mortar businesses, it’s a physical symbol of what they are and where they stand in this community, but it only happens on one autumn weekend a year. A bit like our rural places themselves, it’s easy to miss when you looking only from the road.

While urbanites (even Aucklanders!) are among the 4000 or so who compete and are welcome, behind the race day glory, it’s a family-orientated event and very much community-run. Obviously, it won’t be happening this year, but Chris does not want to appear a whiner.

“Look, there is this enormous tragedy, global upheaval and a trail of destruction across the world. I don’t want to talk up our pain. This isn’t Syria.

“Sure, this is our income, but Anna and I always say it’s like throwing a party for 4000 of your best mates. I love watching the faces of people coming across the finish. It’s when the people who wouldn’t normally do this sort of thing get over the line that I get the biggest kick.”

Naturally, the money which the event brings into the town and helps extend the tourist season is important and – something that is not so obvious in city business – people can see where it goes.

One stream of it flows from The Vineyard Half’s rent of a paddock for parking via the farmer owner who donates it to the local school which, in turn, is able to take a few more students out on winter sports trips. Another stream of more than $300,000 over the last six years has gone to the national charity, Bowel Cancer NZ.

Just two examples of incomes for good causes from one local event that won’t happen in 2020.

All the money to set up this year’s event has already been spent. Among the event paraphernalia Chris has 4000 dated paper bags and medals sitting in his garage that he won’t be able to use next year. Some competitors are asking for refunds while others ask him to give their race fee to charity.

Like so many other small businesspeople across NZ, Chris is stuck in no man’s land, where all his funding has now been spent on the promise of an income-generating event that ended before it began.

“We had contingency planning for earthquakes but no one ever thought of a global pandemic,” he says.

Then there are the other unseen things that won’t be happening this year. The networks, the business relationships, the favours done to and fro, the talking, the horse-trading and negotiating, as well as the thank yous that go on behind the scenes. They all help provide the messy but important human glue that holds together – and sometimes divides – a community.

Chris won’t predict the future for his event, or for an industry of more high-profile extreme adventure and endurance races in which New Zealand was such a global pioneer. He does believe, however, that there will be a healing role for them to play when the virus is under control.

“So many of these events are run by a bunch of sole operators who put their heart and souls into it and do it for the love it, “ he says.

“Events are important. They bring people together in a shared effort. Humans are gregarious animals and generally, we like to do things together and in a community. We want to feel good and celebrate where we live. All of us. Wherever we are.”

Maybe next year.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

Can you help our journalists uncover the facts?

Newsroom is committed to giving our journalists the time they need to uncover, investigate, and fact-check tough stories. Reader donations are critical to buying our team the time they need to produce high-quality independent journalism.

If you can help us, please donate today.


Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: Thank you.

With thanks to our partners