As you can imagine for a country of just 4 million people, the New Zealand running community is quite small and intimate– much different from my own experiences in the US and even Texas alone. I got a good taste of that when I went to watch Nick Willis, Kiwi superstar and Olympic silver medalist, attempt to run the World Championship 1500 meter A standard here in Auckland last week.
Before the race, my wonderful hosts Hayden and Charlotte (who I know through Neil and Mel in Melbourne) invited Holly Van Dalen over for a run and dinner. Holly and her twin sister Lucy both had illustrious running careers at Stony Brook University (finishing 6th and 7th in the NCAA Cross Country Championship, among other accomplishments) and are now running post-collegiately, though training in separate cities for the first time. I obviously love our twin connection, but I also found Holly’s spirit and optimism to be totally infectious. She’s currently making a comeback from a long, grueling injury that sidelined her while Lucy made the NZ Olympic team, but still beams when she talks about her sister’s accomplishments. I was thrilled to run into Holly in the beginning of my long run this morning, and I hope we get in some more good chats and runs over the next month.
Our run around Mt. Eden and Auckland Domain was great, the “fush and chups” were delicious, and the company was divine!
The four of us then headed to the Millennium Institute of Sport to watch Nick’s race and add a little momentum to the crowd. There’s nothing worse than a dead track, especially when someone’s going for a major mark like Nick was, and I thought the race organizers did a good job of preventing that. They limited the event to that single race, gathered a dozen guys to pace Nick and attempt to run fast themselves, and advertised the race all week long. A good crowd turned out, the conditions were ideal apart from a little wind, and the excitement in the stadium was tangible.
Nick ran on the heels of his two pacemakers from the gun and was well on pace to run the 3:35.00 standard at the halfway mark. Unfortunately he dropped off a bit after that and crossed the finish line in 3:36.15. Despite falling agonizingly short of his goal, Nick seemed pleased with the effort in what was essentially a glorified time trial, and fired up about giving the mark another shot in next week’s Sydney Grand Prix.
Although Nick’s race was obviously impressive, I was maybe even more impressed with the grace and appreciation he showed afterwards. He made a point to shake hands and give high-fives to his many supporters and asked all of the kids to join him for his victory lap. They were clearly delighted to run alongside him, and that is totally an experience that would have kicked off a running interest for me at that age. As they say over here… Good on ya, Nick! And best of luck in Sydney and in the outdoor season.
It was also neat to see the support that Nick and the other competitors got from the Auckland running community. Nick is obviously a superstar over here, but the other guys in the race were well-supported too. Holly knew just about everyone in the race and in the stands, and was able to fill me in on many of their PBs and backgrounds.
While we’re on the subject of running in New Zealand… Hayden, who I’m living with for the first half of March, is working on a brilliant project that I think lots of runners would totally dig. He’s writing a series of books called A Runner’s Guide, and filling each one with maps, running routes, thorough reviews, and tips from elite runners about a specific city. He’s already written one about his hometown of Wellington and is in the final stages of a London edition, which he gathered information for while living there for six months last year. These books are exactly what I’d want if I were visiting a city for the first time, just beginning to run, or looking to spice up my normal routes, and I strongly recommend y’all check them out. His website (arunnersguide.com) has more information on the books and on ordering both hard copies and electronic versions.
Last but not least, Happy Texas Independence Day, y’all! For those of you who aren’t fortunate enough to call yourselves Texans, “Texas is the best place on Earth, and real humble about it to boot…”
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