Running event under fire

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A war of words has erupted over a proposed Queenstown ultra-marathon due to fallout from a race the organiser ran seven years ago.

Hong Kong-based RacingThePlanet plans a seven-day, 250-kilometre race next March, with about 200 athletes coming from 50 countries or so.

In 2011, it organised a 100km race in Western Australia’s Kimberley region in which two women were almost burnt to death as a result of “freak fires”.

A Western Australian government inquiry found the organisers weren’t legally liable but “did not take all reasonable steps to maintain the safety of competitors, staff or volunteers”.

After the worst-injured competitor, Turia Pitt – who suffered 64 per cent burns to her body and had four fingers and a thumb amputated – filed a lawsuit, RacingThePlanet settled out of court with a rumoured payout of up to $A10 million.

Due to those dramas, Dunedin ultra-runner Grant Guise says he’d be “pretty disappointed” to see it organise a New Zealand race.

In a Facebook post, in which he shares the findings of the inquiry, he writes: “From what (little) I know, I do not think the NZ running community will gain anything from supporting and allowing companies like this [to] operate here.”

He tells Mountain Scenehe and another party have written to Queenstown’s council “to voice our concerns that the council would sign off on any event like this”.

Guise admits “everyone deserves a second chance”, but claims Racing-ThePlanet didn’t accept responsibility for 2011.

“You don’t want people coming into NZ that are blase about conditions – maybe it’s not going to be a fire, but we have changeable weather or whatever.”

RacingThePlanet founder/owner, American-born Mary Gadams, who suffered second-degree burns while running the 2011 race herself, believes Guise is misinformed.

“It’s just absolutely terrible what happened and I can say that to this day it still goes through my mind, and obviously [Pitt] has a pretty high profile in Australia because she’s made this amazing comeback which we’re extremely happy about.”

Gadams maintains no expense was spared preparing for the race – “we had, like, four international doctors”.

“Then all of a sudden, this freak fire broke out, it went through the course and burned five people.

“Later, we found out that many of the police statements that were submitted had left out, or blocked out, the fact that the [Western Australian] government and one or two landowners were doing some sort of burning in the area.”

Gadams claims the government, which invited her to stage the race, sponsored it and filmed it to promote the region, scapegoated her company.

“I never dreamed they would turn the whole story to make it seem like we were the culprits.

“We have apologised in writing [to Pitt and the other main victim], but we didn’t have the opportunity to meet with them – it just turned into a blame game.

“But I would be happy to meet either of the girls at some time.”

Responding to Guise, she promises her company will run a totally safe Queenstown race, and use local event organisers.

“I feel like we have all the checks and balances in place with all the races we do – we’ve staged about 55 races in 20 countries over about 15 years.”

scoop@scene.co.nz