Steve Landells profiles a flourishing club, which also toasts a special birthday this year.
Committed to a “club first” and “family friendly” culture, Feilding Moa Harriers has enjoyed a recent resurgence with their 80th anniversary coinciding with the their hosting of the iconic NZ Road Relays on October 5th.
The Manawatu-based club are currently thriving, having doubled membership over the past six years to around 185 active runners.
Not wanting to rest on the success of these past six year they have embraced Athletics NZ’s Club Development programme and the awarding of the national Road Relays has provided further gloss for one of the most vibrant provincial Harrier clubs in the country.
“We like to think we punch above our weight,” explains club vice-captain and 2019 New Zealand Road Relay Event Director Rob Dabb.
“We have a strong club of more than 180 members with a clear and defined club culture. Our motto is club first and we make sure club events take priority.”
Formed in 1939, initial membership of the club sat at just 11 with the first run taking place from the community centre on April 22, 1939. A little known fact is that among the 1939 members was a young Jack Gleeson who went on to be one of the most successful All Blacks coaches.
During World War II the club went into recess for three years before resuming activities in 1946. It then went on to enjoy a golden period throughout the 1950s as the sport underwent a boom in popularity.
“One of the big races back then was the Anderson Rally cross country race in Dannevirke,” explains Club Patron, Bruce Wilson, a member of Feilding Moa Harriers since 1952. “We won the individual race five times and the team race on several occasions. Feilding Moa combined with Napier Harriers to revive the Anderson Rally this past winter after it had been in recess for nearly 20 years.
“The Wellington to Masterton Relay was a big road race, which we won twice in the 1950s and placed second on three occasions and in 1950 Les Shadbolt of Moa who the New Zealand Cross Country Championships.”
A junior women’s grade was introduced at the club in 1966 – believed to be one of the first clubs in the country to do this - with women first competing in 1971.
The road and cross country club has also hosted national events with Feilding staging the 1956 New Zealand Cross Country Championships and New Zealand Road Championships in 1976 and 2005.
Three times the club hosted the NZ Road Relay Championships in 2002, 2003 and 2006 - which helped further cement its status as a provincial athletics stronghold.
As trends have changed and with the proliferation in the choice other leisure activities, numbers at the club started to wane. Six years ago with membership hovering at around 90 and with 65-70 per cent of members aged over 20, Rob says the club sought to address the shortfall by attracting more youngsters to the club.
“We realised families were coming to the club with their kids but the younger ones did not have the option to run, so we brought in a grade called Mini Moas, which is for kids aged seven and under,” explains Rob.
“We introduced a 1km cross country run for them which helped create a passion for running. What we’ve found is those old Mini Moas - now aged 12, 13 and 14 - are still with us at the club.”
Rob says the club were also conscious that the word Harrier could be construed as intimidating for some so the club – which organises training night’s every Tuesday and Thursday - has made an active effort to ensure runners of all levels are made very welcome.
At the heart of this has been the regular organisation of fortnightly handicap races – often over cross country - on a Saturday, which Rob believes has played its part in delivering their objectives.
“Most of our races each weekend are handicap races,” he says. “This ensures that people compete on a level playing field which, theoretically, gives the slower runners or the faster runners an equal chance of victory and the kudos that goes with that.
“Over time, as the beginner runners improve, they become more competitive and enjoy the experience more.
“We have both our elite runners but we also have our weekend warriors with other health and fitness goals.”
This strategic approach has contributed to a doubling of membership over the past six years – a textbook example of the ideal modern harrier organisation.
To further nourish the health and wellbeing of Feilding Moa they have also entered into the Athletics NZ Club Development programme – in which an external consultant helps establish the club’s strategy and Athletics NZ support clubs to achieve their objectives and become strong and capable clubs.
“We engaged with the Club Development Programme because we always know we can do things better,” adds Rob. “We need to make sure the club is structured well in the future and that we are not just reliant on one or two events or one or two strong individuals. We want a strong all-round club and a good, active committee.
“We spoke to our members about what they wanted to see and they saw coaching as high-need, which is something that Athletics NZ are focused on developing too.”
After an approach by Athletics NZ to potentially stage the New Zealand Road Relays Championships, and to coincide with their 80th anniversary, Feilding Moa have decided to once again take up the mantle of hosting the historic event.
Strongly supported financially by Manawatu District Council, the event will see seniors attack a seven leg 67km loop with juniors and masters athletes taking in a 38km route.
“No one leg is the same,” explains Rob. “Each will have its own character and they’ll be plenty of debate as to which is the toughest. All but the last leg will have some hills and other variable. Junior men will be targeting some of the lap records, which we be no mean feat.
“The last leg for both the senior and junior courses is slightly downhill and is all set for someone with good leg speed to chase down the lead.”
Rob also says with quieter roads around Feilding compared to some of the busier towns and cities of New Zealand, traffic management is a much more straight forward operation and he hopes the event will help form the centrepiece of the Feilding 80th anniversary.
“The event will help put Feilding on the map again,” he says. “At the finish we’ll put a tent up and offer free food and drink to all the teams and their supporters. We want to make sure people will remember the 2019 New Zealand Road Relays.”