Ahead of Saturday's New Zealand Cross Country Championships in Christchurch, Steve Landells spoke to Matt Baxter( pictured above #768 at the North Island Cross Country championships), one of the main contenders for the senior men's title.
It is difficult to believe now given Matt Baxter’s rich vein of form that only last year he was close to quitting the sport.
Bedevilled by an ankle injury for months and with no end in sight, the Auckland-based athlete candidly admits: “I had many rough patches and thought, is it (running) even worth bothering with or should I just concentrate on uni?”
Thankfully, this is one injury story with a happy ending. In November last year almost a year after first encountering the problem – an MRI scan revealed a 2cm tear in his peroneal tendon in his ankle.
With the issue identified, Matt then faced a choice. He could either opt for surgery or go on a regime of ankle strengthening. He chose the latter approach and was back running track again in February.
He then enjoyed the best eight-block of training in his life during the autumn and such is his current form he remains unbeaten this cross country season with eight wins out of eight including Auckland and North Island titles.
Matt's next target is this weekend’s New Zealand Cross Country Championships in Christchurch, where the talented 20-year-old will be doing “everything” he can to claim a famous win. It has been some turnaround in fortunes.
Born and raised in New Plymouth, Matt has running in the genes. His father, Rob, was a former 2:20 marathon runner and from the age of “seven or eight” he was winning local primary school cross country races.
It was not, however, until the start of Year Ten at New Plymouth Boys' High School when Matt first decided to give running a serious crack. Under the coaching of Taranaki athletics stalwart Karen Gillum-Green he recalls making an impact in the 2008 New Zealand Secondary Schools’ road race, although perhaps not in the way he would have wanted. He crossed the line first but was disqualified for naively cutting a corner and running across a small section of grass.
“It was a silly mistake, although my school put in a counter protest and I was later given equal first place,” he adds.
Far from discouraged by the incident he quickly emerged as one of the country’s outstanding schoolboy talents. In 2009 he won the silver medal in the junior race at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships “a race which was huge for me and cemented my place in the sport.” In Years 11 and 12 he claimed further silver medals in the prestigious event before finally cracking the senior gold in 2012 – in what was his final school year.
“I was absolutely stoked with the win,” he says of his triumph at St Kentigern’s school in Auckland. “I put a whole bunch of effort into winning that year. I was getting up early three or four days a week to carry out gym sessions before school. It was my final year at high school and I wanted it so badly that when I crossed the line first it was almost a relief.”
He ended the year on a high by smashing the 3000m championship record to strike gold in 8:15.50 at the New Zealand Secondary Schools’ Track and Field Championships in Dunedin before he then moved north in early 2013 to study criminology at Auckland's AUT University.
It was here he hooked up with a new coach in Kerry Rodger – the former Commonwealth Games and World Championship 5000m representative – a move which Matt believes has had a big impact.
“In terms of the training I was doing back in New Plymouth it fits in perfectly,” explains Matt. “My old coach, Karen, trained her athletes on the Lydiard model with her own adaptations to make it more fun to reflect my age. Kerry has a more strict Lydiard approach, but the training he gives me is also sensible given my age. If I’m feeling a bit sore he will ask me to ease back. Also, whenever I have an issue he can often relate it back to when he was running.”
Matt enjoyed a promising first year under Rodger's guidance but then the day before New Year’s Eve 2013 he first felt the ankle soreness which was to hinder his development for the best part of a year and led him to consider quitting.
The MRI scan in November identified the problem and in February he returned to the track, running an “horrendous” 5000m at the Auckland Track Challenge when he was lapped by Nick Willis and the Robertson’s twins among others and he finished tenth in a modest 14:51.98.
Two weeks later he performed a little better, placing 13th in the final of the 1500m at the New Zealand Track & Field Championships. Yet at the end of the track season and with the ankle problem now under control he launched into a “perfect” eight-week block of training and has emerged in outstanding nick for the cross country campaign.
“I've had no time off (my training) and since the cross country season started, I've gone better and better,” admits Matt, who during his heaviest training block was churning out more than 180km a week – the average after his build up sits somewhere between 140km-150km.
Carrying out many of his training runs at Auckland's iconic Cornwall Park he is a regular on the 22-mile Waiatarua Trail made famous by Arthur Lydiard, which he occasionally runs with Jono Jackson – whom he rents a room from in the Auckland suburb of Lynfield.
The hard work has clearly paid dividends this winter as he has racked up series of wins over the country including notable victories at Auckland Championships and North Island Championships.
Moving on to this weekend's National Cross Country Championships many rate Matt's chances of performing well.
However, the modest student, who celebrates his 21th birthday next Thursday, is fully aware of the size of the task he faces at Halswell Quarry – a venue where he has yet to compete.
“Some people may have looked at my results and say I was favourite, but I know as I'm up against guys like Malcolm Hicks and Callan Moody (the defending champion) I will have to have an exceptional day to meet with them. It is going to be tough, but I'm going down there to do everything I can to beat those guys.”
Later next month, Matt's next big challenge will be to compete at the Australian Cross Country Championships in Melbourne but longer term he hopes to translate his outstanding form this winter to success on the track.
“For the past couple of seasons because of my ankle injury, I've not been able to run PB's on the track and hopefully the next track season I will enjoy some massive drops in time. I still enjoy the 1500m but I think at this moment in time the 5k is a good distance for me.”
Longer term he harbours international ambitions where he would like to add to his experience of competing and finishing seventh in the 3000m at the 2011 Commonwealth Youth Games in the Isle of Man.
“I've always thought it would be cool to do some overseas meets and spend some time in Europe or America going from meet to meet,” adds the young Kiwi who cites US distance running icon Steve Prefontaine as his hero. “I would also one day hope to go to a Commonwealth Games or maybe the step above - an Olympic Games.”
Yet rather than Rio or Tokyo the immediate focus is success at Halswell Quarry in Christchurch. A challenge Matt Baxter appears at the moment more than equipped to tackle.