26 October 2021

Sixteen years ago, Mal Winnie suffered a freak accident that broke his spine in five places. Twelve months later he ran his first ultramarathon and has been running the trails ever since, an exercise that profoundly boosts his mental and, perhaps more surprisingly, physical wellbeing.

An active and outdoorsy type, Mal was always drawn to nature and adventure and forged a career as a professional guide. The job enabled Mal to travel the world, guiding through canyons, down rivers on kayaks, and rock climbs.

All this changed in 2005 when Mal’s world was turned upside down. He had just returned to New Zealand from an overseas job and was working on a DIY renovation project when a concrete wall collapsed on top of Mal and crushed him.

“I pretty much went through the process of dying, I thought I was going to die that day. I was there by myself and it’s still a bit of an unknown as to how I survived,” said Mal. “As a result of that accident my injuries were quite severe. I had significant spinal injury, breaking my back in four places and one in my neck, that required pretty significant surgery.”

Mal was rendered unable to walk immediately after the accident and required emergency surgery to fuse together his spine through bone grafts and the use of titanium rods and screws. And so began the long, hard road through rehabilitation to recovery.

“It’s kind of hard to talk about actually, that day, going through the process of dying,” said Mal. “I became quite depressed in hospital initially. I just went to a dark place. I knew I’d lost my career and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do the things I loved doing as much anymore.

“Luckily, I was able to snap out of that relatively quickly with the help of a few people, so in hospital I decided to set myself a goal which would be my motivation for my rehabilitation and that was to complete a marathon within 12 months of my accident,” said Mal. “When you come out the other side and you know that you’re alive, that’s a pretty cool feeling and so you’re really motivated after that.”

This renewed focus became the catalyst for Mal to work hard at his rehabilitation, and to keep going through the often-unbearable pain. Three months on from his surgery, Mal was able to progress from using a Zimmer frame onto crutches and eventually to walking unaided.

“In hospital, I was nicknamed the ‘miracle man’ by the doctors and nurses as they could not believe I was able to walk again post my injuries,” said Mal.

In a testament to the character and courage of the man, twelve months after his accident Mal came through true to his word and ran a marathon – not just any marathon though, a 55km ultramarathon.

“I wasn’t doing the marathon for anybody else, I was just doing it purely for myself and so I just set one up around where I lived and that ending up being my first ultra, I did 55km that day. And that was the start of my love of trail running,” said Mal. “It’s just become a really enjoyable experience for me and I know it sounds counter-intuitive with a spinal injury, but running is actually really good for my body.”

Invigorated by the feeling of running and the ability to connect to nature once more when out on the trails, Mal set his sights on more ultramarathons. A call from his best friend then sparked the desire to enter the 2021 Tarawera Ultramarathon.

“Richard (Mal’s best friend) rang me and said his daughter was in a really bad place, she was having some mental health issues and so we got talking and he suggested we run Tarawera,” said Mal. “At first we looked at the 50km (TUM50) and then we decided to upgrade to the 102km (TUM102). This year we ran it as a fundraising event for mental health and for breast cancer, two charities that are close to both of us.”

Although he put his body through a lot of pain to cross the finish line on that day, Mal had been bitten by the Tarawera Ultra bug and couldn’t wait to do it all over again.

“The body is what it is for me with my injury, I’m never really out of pain so it’s just where I am on that continuum from mild to extreme. I’m pretty used to living with pain,” said Mal. “I’m coming back for a number of reasons. I love challenging myself, I love the mental and physical aspects of it.

“I’ve always been a person that’s believed in living life and believed that as people we’re far more capable than we think we are, and that really inspires me to do it again. I’m 50 now and I want to show my nephews and nieces that you can do these things and with the right attitude and the right mindset, you can do things you never thought you could.”

The 2022 Tarawera Ultramarathon will be extra special for Mal as he’ll be covering the 102 kilometres distance alongside his brother, who was part of his support crew for the 2021 event and left feeling so inspired by the runners and their stories that he decided to sign up himself.

For Mal, trail running and events like Tarawera Ultramarathon have been a salvation and kept him going through some dark times.

“It helps me in every way, anything in the outdoors I call my Vitamin C in life and so it’s just another way of me connecting with nature and that’s always been my passion of mine. When I’m out running those trails, in those moments it’s my clarity and time just stands still,” said Mal. “I think the world just seems to drop away and you just get on that emotional high. There’s that real connection to things outside of yourself, and I love that.”

Tarawera Ultramarathon is an iconic Rotorua event, with the four distances taking in 200km plus of stunning local trails, seven lakes, waterfalls, lush forest and volcanic trails. The 14th edition of this much-loved event takes place on Saturday 12 February 2022.