words x charlotte donegan
photos x michael dawson, anupam singh & matt illing

As far as international cities go, Auckland has always been like the younger brother or sister trying to keep up with its older siblings. It has often lacked the grime, the wear and tear, that one would expect from a big city. That ‘je ne sais quoi’ that makes the likes of New York, London, and Paris cities that you can’t help but fall in love with despite the smell of hot trash in summer, crime riddled streets, and dog shit on the footpath.

looking back across a disused motorway which is now called the ‘pink path’ which is a cycle and running lane with the sky tower in the background. photo by anupam singh

But, in more recent times, Auckland has found its feet. No longer fumbling along like the little city that could – it is a city that can. Gone are the days of relying on a single street running through the centre of town to capture the attention of people travelling through; it is a sprawling city with nooks and crannies worth exploring, each offering their own personality and community. It is also wide-awake well into the night, all the while still offering a sense of safety to late night runners that can only come from being part of a small country at the bottom of the world.

For Race09 co-founder and avid runner, Dan Donegan, there was always hope that Auckland would get to this point.

“I spent five years in New York and New Jersey working and then travelling to other big cities around the world. Auckland was always great to come home to, but it always felt small. In recent times though, it’s grown-up. It has an authenticity to it. As a runner, moving your way around the place, you get to see that all first-hand.”

group start along broadway at rush out in auckland’s shopping precinct of newmarket. photo by michael dawson.

With the city finally earning its stripes, Donegan and co-founder Michael Dawson felt the time was right for a running race that complemented Auckland’s new-found edge.

“Until Race09 came on the scene, there had been a real lack of events for the city’s more determined and adventurous runners. People who just really love to run and aren’t worried about looking pretty while they do it. For a good six months or so, Michael and I threw plenty of ideas back and forth about what a race like that could look like, how it would work, the kind of runner we wanted to have involved.  We finally settled on the Race09 format, but had no idea if it would work or if people would actually enjoy it.”

down hill start from the auckland war memorial museum. photo by michael dawson.

The co-founders set about creating an event that centred around Auckland. From its name (09 is the Auckland area code) through to the 09 beer served after each event from Auckland-centric brewery Hallertau, it’s a bit of a love letter to a city that they’re proud of.

Whether it’s running from under the Auckland Harbour Bridge to the top of one of the many volcanic cones, or from the Auckland War Memorial Museum to what is now an America’s Cup village, each of the Race09 events allows racers to experience some of the most iconic parts of the city. According to Dawson, the photography opportunities don’t hurt either.

sam waldin winning the karangahape rd race. photo by michael dawson.

“The gritty nature of the racing, the unique backdrop of the 09, and the dark and unknown atmosphere make for some of the most interesting and dynamic images I have the pleasure of shooting,” says Dawson.

No two Race09 races are the same, with the start line shifting each time and competitors only finding out where they need to run to half an hour before the race. There also isn’t a set course.

michael amies finishing up the karangahape rd race. photo by michael dawson.

For event frequenter, Michael Amies, it’s the unknown that keeps him coming back.

“I am not the fastest runner there, and I never will be, but it’s always a great ride from start to finish – rushing through the streets, chancing your route against others. Every race is different, a new challenge, new people, but still no rules and that’s what keeps bringing me back.”

The lack of rules means it isn’t an event for the faint of heart. There isn’t a road closure, traffic cone, or course guide in sight. In fact, at the start of each race, Donegan makes it very clear that anyone taking part is doing so at their own risk. To date, there have only been a few minor scrapes and scratches and one pretty badly dislocated finger. But, what else could be expected from a race that’s seen competitors clambering up the side of volcanoes?

skye dick finishing up the karangahape rd race. photo by michael dawson.

For Skye Dick, who moved to Auckland from Scotland just over a year ago, Race09 offered something very different to the 5km fun runs she was attending each week.

“At one of the local pub runs, I overheard a couple of guys talking about Race09, saying it was a mad fast race. Being new to the city, I asked them what it was about and was directed to the Instagram page. I entered the very next race and after one of the fastest 8k’s I’d done across the city, I was hooked.”

logan griffin battling along an unknown dark street. photo by matt illing

Logan Griffin, who has raced bikes competitively for almost ten years, used to actively avoid running since high school, but found himself signed up for a marathon after a few beers and a bet amongst friends.

“Running was going to be a big change in direction. With a few runs under my belt, a mate of mine sent me an Instagram link with some photos of the first Race09 and instantly I knew this was something I wanted to be involved with.”

logan griffin taking line honours ahead of some accomplished runners. photo by michael dawson.

While there is clearly a competitive element that keeps people coming back for more, Race09 has also provided the opportunity for Auckland runners to meet other like-minded people and share a beer with them once they’ve crossed the finish line.

“We’d always hoped that we could build a good crew of people out of Race09 and I think the format of our events lends itself to that,” says Donegan.

“People are often really nervous before entering Race09 for a variety of reasons – they don’t know where they’ll be running or who else will show up to race, they’re worried they’ll take a wrong turn or pick a bad route, they know that nobody intends to jog or take it easy. Then they run, and at the end there is just this collective sense of relief that no matter how the race panned out, every other person there just went through the same experience.

unnamed runners battling it out along karangahape rd. photo by michael dawson.

“There’s definitely a certain type of camaraderie that comes from being put through the wringer,” Donegan says.

“Race 09 for me strikes the perfect balance of competition, community and beers. For me there’s nothing better than racing hard but then having a laugh and a beer about it afterwards. Through the races I’ve run in and watched, I’ve made some great mates and it’s really been the entry point into the rabbit hole that is competitive running but also a whole new group of friends,” says Griffin.

warrick wood across grafton bridge. photo by michael dawson.

For runners like Warrick Wood and Annabelle Bramwell, the attraction to the event was instant, but it’s the people that have kept them interested.

“As soon as I saw Race09, I knew I wanted to be a part of it – something unique, exciting, and at night! But the thing that keeps me coming back is the people. I ran my first one and didn’t know anyone, but it’s a great atmosphere that balances competition with socialising after. I’ve met some great people who I’ve been able to run with since,” says Wood.

“Running to me is about community, it’s about adventure and it’s about challenging yourself. Dan and Michael have created an epic community where on race day people will absolutely suffer and bury themselves running their own way through the city, but get to laugh, enjoy the night, and hang out after with a cold beer,” says Bramwell. 

annabelle bramwell winning the women’s title at the first out of auckland race in the south island city of christchurch. photo by michael dawson.

“The unsanctioned chaos that is Race09 with limited spaces and new locations makes you never want to miss a race. It keeps it exciting and challenging and even if you miss out on an entry, simply being involved and enjoying a beer is just as fun. It comes back to community, and Race09 has created one that just keeps you wanting more race days!”

With the 2020 season now behind them, Donegan and Dawson are looking at what the 2021 season of Race09 will look like. In keeping with its reputation to date, it’s likely to be predictably unpredictable. But one constant will remain – Auckland.

flying fish films race. photo by michael dawson.
men’s and women’s winners of christchurch race, vajin armstrong and annabelle bramwell. photo by michael dawson.