A Brief History of the Race
In 1935 eight runners, in succession, carried a message from Dan Sullivan, Mayor of Christchurch, to Fred Davis, Mayor of Akaroa. In the eighty years since, the ritual has been repeated each year as part of the Takahe-Akaroa relay, apart from five years during World War II and in 2010, immediately following the Canterbury earthquake.
On 1 June 1935 fifteen teams of young men representing six clubs started the first road running relay in New Zealand, from the Sign of the Takahe to Akaroa. Five years later the relay was a 1940 national centennial event, and similarly in 1950, an official event marking Canterbury’s provincial centennial. In 1961, Clarrie Gordon organised the first team of men over 40 to compete in New Zealand, although it was another five years before such a team was accepted as an official entry in the Takahe-Akaroa. And it was a further seven years before the first women competed in the relay. In 1973, Janice Gilling and Kerry Rollo ran for a New Brighton team and, the following year, New Brighton entered a full women’s team. Three years later, in 1977, a women’s competition commenced. This was also the year that a national inter-club relay championship was inaugurated, not surprisingly New Zealand’s oldest relay having been chosen to be the first championship venue.
By 1989, on the occasion of the 50th running of the race, the relay, now doubling as the National Road Relay Championships for the fourth time, was sponsored by Mobil NZ. Moreover, it was a race with 186 teams, not just of young men but also young women, veteran men and veteran women.
A junior men’s grade had been introduced in 1985, although the first junior team (all were under 17) competed as far back as 1972, being a Christchurch Boy’s High Harrier Club team. Junior women obtained a grade of their own in 1997, the same year that the six-lap relay for juniors was introduced.
In 1935 the relay was a major journey to a remote holiday centre on the Peninsula, more pleasurably spread over two days. The roads were mostly shingle and part of the way followed the railway line to Little River. In places runners ran across country. Since that time the roads have been sealed, the railway has gone. Akaroa, now an easy hour’s drive from Christchurch, no longer has its own mayor – being now part of a much expanded Christchurch City. Yet the ritual of a message from Christchurch to Akaroa remains. Traditionally it was carried in the hollowed inside of the flax-stalk baton and delivered by the last runner of the fastest team into Akaroa, which from 1993 was either a fastest men’s team or a fastest women’s.
Question: How could the organisers ensure that the fastest team to Akaroa would have the message?
Phillip Hewland enjoyed walking on the Port Hills to Governors Bay and Diamond Harbour. He would sometimes even walk to Akaroa to stay with family friends. After returning from such a visit he woke early the following morning to tell his brother he had had an idea for a relay race to Akaroa.
Hewland had a further motive. Teams should stay over the weekend, preferably a long weekend. Then as the principal reporter he could call his Akaroa sojourn a working weekend thereby combining three of his pleasures. Accordingly he wrote that the Takahe-Akaroa race “will provide the ordinary Saturday afternoon run for competitors, with the additional interest of running in an historic event over new country, and above all, a remarkably cheap holiday in one of Canterbury’s finest holiday resorts.”
A grandson of Henry Jacobs, first Dean of Christchurch, Hewland was, in 1935, a young reporter on The Press. He had begun there as a message boy but aspiring to be a reporter, he became aware that no one covered athletics and in winter he extended his activities to reporting harriers.
Having his idea for the relay to Akaroa was one thing. Hewland needed to gain financial support to publicise the viability of the race as well convince his running compatriots that the relay would be no more arduous than an ordinary Saturday club run and afterwards they could enjoy the hospitality and entertainment provided by the Akaroa residents.
On 1 June 1935 fifteen teams of young men representing six clubs started the first road running relay in New Zealand, from the Sign of the Takahe to Akaroa. Hewland ran the opening lap for the University A team. Upon its successful completion, there was no doubt in the minds of the organising committee who was due the biggest vote of thanks. Mr J. McIndoe, then secretary of the cross-country committee, told those gathered in Akaroa after the race that Hewland had conceived the idea and pressed it forward with irresistible energy. The cheers of those present showed they agreed with him.
Phillip Hewland was to run in the Takahe-Akaroa three more times, the last being in 1939. He lost his job at The Press during the war because of his pacifist convictions but went on to become a senior leader writer on Wellington’s Dominion and then director of publicity for the New Zealand Meat Producers’ Board. In the mid-sixties he became European director of Hewland Ruder, and Finn (Int.) Ltd., a leading British public relations company. In 1989 with his wife Julie, he returned to see the 50th running of the relay. A race sponsored by Mobil NZ and doubling as the National Road Relay Championships. A race with 186 teams, not just of young men but also young women, veteran men and veteran women.
“All because I had an idea for a cheap holiday in Akaroa,” he remarked.