In 1909 the Southland Marathon became the first full length (42.195km) marathon in New Zealand, indeed, in the Southern Hemisphere.
The records stand at 2:12.20 for men set by John Campbell when he qualified for the Olympics and 2:37.58 run by Gabby O'Rourke.
Historically the course started on a small hill above the picturesque seaside village of Riverton and travelled through flat, fertile Southland farming country to suburban Invercargill to finish at Surrey Park athletic track.
Looking back a bit, until 1908 there was no set distance for a marathon. Most were in the vicinity of 25 miles. But for the 1908 London Olympics the organisers agreed to Royal wishes for the start to be at the Windsor Castle apartments, allowing the Royal children a view, with the finish in front of the Royal Box at the stadium. It was deemed more appropriate that the finish came to the King rather than the King coming to the finish. The distance happened to be 26 miles and 385 yards or 42.195 kilometres. London saw the world's first 42.195km marathon, Southland saw the next. Marathons have been that distance ever since.
The first winner was David Stewart in 3 hours 22.30 and, while not a brilliant time by today's standards, being the first full length marathon in the country the 13 starters were really setting out into the unknown, which may explain why only seven finished.
Perhaps the time may have been faster if the winner and second place getter had not stopped for a couple of nips of brandy at Underwood. Nor did underfoot conditions help. The road was rough gravel, and where it wasn't gravel it was mud. Except the mud was frozen (the race being in July, and Southland in July is often freezing). In the circumstances, 3.22 hours was a reasonable achievement.
Even back then commercialism was not to be denied. The crowd at the Rugby Park finish line loudly applauded the first runner through the gate, only to find an enterprising drapery company had paid someone to run past with a placard on his back advertising the winter sale. He had apparently joined the race just around the corner.
According to reports of the time, the real winner entered the ground a few minutes later to genuine applause. Whether Mr Stewart or any of the other entrants wanted to repeat the experience we will never know. But there was little chance of back-to-back wins, as the race wasn't staged again until 1953. This time there were but two entrants and the winning time 3.47.15. Since then however, it has become a regular feature on the Southland running calendar.
In 2020 the race went off road to a new course using the historic Stead Street wharf and picturesque Invercargill Estuary.