The Next Middle Distance Star

I am often asked if I ever ran a sub-4-minute mile. My response is always no but I did manage to run 4m1s in the first mile of a 15km road race. Looking back, I probably should have persisted with track racing much longer. So far this year, 6 overseas high school students have managed the sub-4-minute mile feat. New shoe technology, better tracks and the right training has made it all possible. Historically New Zealand has led the world in middle distance with Olympic medals in the 1500m to Jack Lovelock, Peter Snell, John Davies, Rod Dixon and John Walker. More recently we have had Olympic success with Nick Willis and now Sam Tanner is running very fast times. Historically in the women’s 800m event we have had 3 women under 2 minutes and while larger countries may have had more, if a sub-2-minute athlete starts in an Olympic final, they are in with a chance. New Zealand runners are fast but are typically more endurance types who can withstand consecutive days of heats, semi-finals and finals. This format can see favourites ousted in the early rounds, but in the past New Zealanders have managed to make many finals.

While I hope that exceptions and someone proves me wrong, I feel it is pointless for NZ to try and develop athletes to compete against Jamaica, USA, and the world’s best sprinters. Likewise, it is very hard competing against Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda in the longer 5000m, 10,000m and marathon races. However, history shows that we can have success by concentrating on 800m and 1500m events. Our success in middle distance suggests that more effort could be put into developing and transitioning promising sprinter types into middle distance. Body type often distinguishes the events athletes are suited, but the 800m and 1500m events have had many varied body types succeed.

Talented runners are fast. It is very difficult to significantly increase your speed over the 100m to 400m distances. But it is possible to increase your speed endurance. Today’s top 1500m and 5000m women can all run 55s or faster for 400m. In fact, the final lap of the women’s 5000m at the Tokyo Olympics was run around 57s. The last 2 laps of a top women’s 1500m event is often run under 2 minutes. While New Zealand has many fast 200m and 400m runners, very few have transitioned to middle distance events. This is possibly where they could have found the most success.

Athletics is not just about fast times, records, and medals. It is also about connections, friendships, and education. It instils persistence, resilience, drive, and a whole lot of other qualities that are important for later life and in any workforce. Every good race is the result of many other races that did not quite go to plan. In every race there is one winner, but you either win or you learn. The PBs come later from that learning experience. A lot of my runners have gone on to become valued associates and consultants in law, accountancy and various other business firms or they have established successful medical practises. The majority were not just champion athletes but were outstanding academics at school and at university. Their choice not to pursue a running career was a loss to athletics but a win for the business and medical community. However, don’t be one of those sprinters who didn’t quite get to where they wanted in athletics. Before starting university or a career, consider a change of event. New event, new motivation. It may be the ticket to you becoming New Zealand’s next big middle-distance star.