Real Life

The farmer and the housewife: Our ’80s marathon run

From Bluff to Cape Reinga, this duo spent 30 days on the road.

Long before pedometers and activewear, an unlikely duo set off for an epic run from Bluff to Cape Reinga.

Back in 1980, such a feat was considered more than a bit barmy – all the newspapers wanted to know about the 33-year-old “Maungaturoto housewife” Stella Cawkwell and her 53-year-old running partner, retired farmer Ben Thomas of Orewa.

“A lot of people said, ‘You can’t do it, you’ll fight, you won’t get on,’” Stella (69) recalls. “But we never had any arguments.”

While Stella had been running since her late twenties, Ben started later in life, completing his first marathon at 50.

The pair had already run 16 marathons before Stella came up with what Ben calls the “crazy idea” to run from the bottom of the South Island to the top of the North. Taking one month, it would see them average more than 50km a day and at the end, they would have run 2044km – the equivalent of 48 marathons.

Now, more than 36 years later, the pair can look back and laugh at the gruelling journey, which in those days took them through treacherous terrain and busy state highways.

“I don’t remember anyone telling me we couldn’t do it, but some people thought we were a bit mad,” chuckles Ben, now 89. “People who aren’t into running don’t realise how training for a marathon, or going for a run before breakfast, can give you a real runner’s high – although I didn’t get many with this one!”

If it weren’t for the scrapbook full of photos, newspaper clippings, hand-drawn maps and diary entries, the pair might never be believed.

You won’t find Stella and Ben in any internet searches, even though Stella is thought to be the first woman to complete the journey, and the pair still believe they hold the record for fastest finish.

“We picked each other up when we were down,” Stella tells. “I remember Ben reciting this poem called Piddlin’ Pete all the way up the hill and into Timaru to lift our spirits, it just went on and on.”

Ben and Stella, pictured here at the finish line in Cape Reinga 36 years ago, look back fondly on their epic, gruelling journey.

Ben and Stella raised money for disabled children as they made their way up the country. A support crew towed a caravan so they could collapse every night, after enjoying a meal at a local home, organised by the Lions Club.

Stella recalls how the charity kindly produced a big box of vegetables in Christchurch when she was craving greens.

Their support crew towed a caravan behind them.

But while there were many highs, passing through Kaikoura on day 13 was a definite low.

As well as feeling cold, sick and tired, Stella was also suffering from a painful infected toenail. When she went to the doctor for antibiotics, he told her she was “stupid to do this sort of thing”.

“I had tears pouring down my face. You get a bit raw emotionally, but I don’t quit,” she tells. “We were doing such long runs in the morning, so I had low blood sugar and I’d get quite tearful, missing my kids and my husband at home.”

Near the finish line, their family and friends joined in.

For Ben, who struggled with pain at times, the hardest part of the journey was climbing up the Bombay Hills with the screeching trucks alongside them. The pair ran straight past his house in Orewa without even popping in.

On the final stretch, their spirits were lifted by friends and family joining them as they climbed the hill at Tuponi.

Then at Cape Reinga, the finish line, there was utter relief.

They’d raised $10,000 dollars and proved to New Zealand they could do it. The party ended up in the Mangaturoto Hall, where Stella remembers being called onto the stage to receive her kudos.

She promptly fainted, the curtains closing with her legs still sticking out. She also suffered severe cramps caused by calcification in her legs due to the run. She recovered and went on to participate in an Ironman triathlon. That meant learning to swim and ride a bike.

“The feeling of accomplishing something is like nothing else,” she smiles. “And if it’s hard, it’s even better.”

The pair raised $10,000 for disabled children.

Ben went on to climb Mt Kilimanjaro at the age of 78.

He was going on three-day tramps around the country at 86, but sadly has had to slow down after suffering a stroke three years ago.

His inspirational message to others is to get out there while they still have their health.

“I’m sad it’s ground to a halt, but then I think how lucky I am to have had all these great experiences,” he smiles. “It doesn’t matter what you do or how old you are – all that matters is having a go.”

Words: Anastasia Hedge

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