Kellys Canter – A Meaty Mini Mountain to Race

It’s the quintessential mountain race concept everywhere, the town has a hill on the skyline, let’s have a race to the top and back. So it is in Palmerston, East Otago nestled under 344m Puketapu peak, and the 43rd annual Kellys Canter will be contested there this year on Sunday, October 20th. You have to experience this iconic race, feel its history.

344m Puketapu Peak, viewed from Palmerston.

344m Puketapu Peak, viewed from Palmerston.

Puketapu’s summit is made more prominent by the clearly visible cairn in memory of local politician and Minister of Lands Sir John McKenzie. He campaigned for the breaking up of the largest properties to give new farmers a start and was so popular that soon after his funeral a cairn in his honour was erected right on top of Puketapu. It collapsed within a few years, blown apart by fierce winds. The current much sturdier cairn was built in 1929 and the stonemason working on it said; “The wind was so strong when I parked my bike it almost stood up on its own”. Warning runners. The winds still blow.

In 1939 Puketapu was climbed for practical wartime purposes. Local policeman Bert Kelly had to monitor the coastline for hostile activity and the view from the top of Puketapu was perfect. It’s rumoured that the round trip took Constable Kelly close on 20 minutes which compares very well with recent race times and suggests that few crims would have evaded the law back then. Now, over 70 years later, “running Puki” is still very much the standard local fitness test.


Russell Hurring at the 1989 Kelly’s Canter, on the “more direct & much steeper route of the earlier years”

At only 4km Kellys Canter may seem a lightweight to even be called a mountain race. Don’t be fooled, it’s a tougher test than it seems, even with recent safety changes. The route originally went straight up the hill requiring hands and knees scrambling for even the strongest near the summit, and usually an uncontrollable five point slide back down. Large stones were often dislodged on that steepest part of the hill and after many close calls the course was modified to eliminate the risk. It’s rumoured that in the early years legendary local runner and doctor Chip Dunkley, himself a veteran of more than 20 Kellys Canters, treated multiple winner Tony Snell for grass burns on his tender rear parts, the mark of truly committed descending. We can be thankful for modern lugged trail shoes.

The climb now takes a more gradual sidling route which is all runnable, just, and a different descent route also sidles through the rocky sections so that loosened rocks roll harmlessly away. But it will take a heroic run to better Dan O’Connell’s record time of 17 minutes 45seconds set on the direct route. Recent winners Dougal Thorburn (2011), and Richard Olsen (2012) have run times close to 20 minutes. The women’s race has been dominated for the last two years by NZ 1500m track representative Rebekha Greene in around 24 minutes. Evergreen mountain man Andrew Town is a great supporter of Kellys Canter, a multiple winner in his prime, he is still the vet to beat with his fearless, if not so graceful, descending.


Russell, with granddaughter Marley and wife Trees. Marley at age 3 cranked out her first Kelly’s Canter!

One truly good thing about Kelly’s Canter is that although the winners take only 20 minutes the less tormented (walkers) can generally complete the course in an hour. That is just enough time for the speedsters to regain their breath and buy the ice cream from Palmerston’s famous Licker Parlour less than 100 metres downtown from the finish line. It’s the perfect Sunday afternoon family outing and the ideal way to introduce the kids to mountain running. Just be warned. If you graciously help your kids up the climb they will cream you on the descent with their lower centre of gravity and absence of fear – when ice cream is at stake.

The second truly good thing about Kelly’s Canter is that with the help of generous local sponsorship organisers, the Palmerston Lions Club, offer the best ratio of prize money to entry fee of any race in the country, $300 for the first man and the first woman with $5 to enter, $2 for kids. How can you miss? No online bedlam, no wait lists, all welcome. Just bring your entry money to the caravan outside the Palmerston railway station from 1:00pm onwards for a 2:00pm start. Usually held on the third Sunday in October, this year the 20th. See you there.

About Russell Hurring

Russell Hurring has written 2 .

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  1. Hi Kelly s Canter means a lot to me. I am Bert Kelly s grand daughter. My mother Gloria Ballantyne is the only living sibling that Bert Kelly and Freda had. A number of years ago the lions club organised Kelly s Canter, and i took mum there in October that year to give out the cups. Just thought i would share that info with you. I am proud to be Bert Kelly s grand daughter, and feel honored that people to this day still run the hill.

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