Above: Katherine Marshall winning the Capital Classic 800m. Photo by Jo Murray.
Katherine Marshall is one of New Zealander’s leading 800m runners. However, as Steve Landells discovered, the Welsh-based Kiwi hopes for great success on the international stage in future.
Katherine Marshall may have spent four years in Midwest America and may now live in for much of the year in Wales but for the talented 800m specialist, home is where the heart is.
Raised on a dairy farm in the small Waikato community of Ngahinapouri – 25 minutes from Hamilton – Katherine may have racked up the miles in her global athletics adventure but without a doubt she is a product of her environment.
Leading a typically “active” lifestyle on the farm she naturally gravitated towards sport at school and quickly discovered an ability to leave her rivals for dust in primary school cross country races.
From the age of 13 she joined the Te Awamutu Athletics Club and under the patient guidance of her coach at the time, Neal Webb, she started to take the sport more seriously.
“I began as 100m and 200m sprinter, but it was Neal who persuaded me to step up to the 400m,” she says. “He really set me up (in my career) by giving me goals,” explains Katherine.
She went on to earn medal success at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships, although it wasn’t until her final year as a Te Awamutu College student when she finally earned her maiden gold medal striking 400m gold in 55.89 at the 2009 edition in Timaru.
“It was huge,” she says of finally earning top spot on the podium. “It gave me the confidence to believe I could reach the goals I set for myself.”
Yet her athletics journey was soon to take an unexpected fork in the road when she opted to leave her home town and head more than 12,000km north east to the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Encouraged by her Te Awamutu training partner, Laura Sinclair, who attended George Mason University in Virginia, she explored the option of taking up a US scholarship and adopted a simple strategy for selecting her college destination.
“The recruiter at the University of Tulsa was really persistent, so I thought, yes, I like the sound of this guy, I’ll give it a go,” she explains.
Principally a 400m flat exponent she had been recruited by the college as a 400m hurdler – largely on the strength of having finished second at New Zealand Championships in her secondary event – and this was to present its challenges.
Starting her student life in Tulsa in January 2011 she competed as a 400m hurdler for her first two seasons there, but struggled to adapt to the demands of the event.
“I never been a good technical hurdler,” admits Katherine. “I’m okay running between the hurdles, but because of the hurdling I found every training sessions stressful. Then when racing, I would get really wound up and not perform well.”
After a discussion with her US coach Clif Mitchell it was decided it might be better to switch events and step up in distance to the 800m – it proved an inspired move.
In 2013 – her first full season as a two-lap runner – she improved from 2:09.93 (she had one 800m outing in 2012) to a PB of 2:06.38
“The event suited me a lot better,” she explains. “I would turn up for the harder sessions, and love it.”
Her senior year in 2014 proved the highlight of her time in the US. That season she started to make a genuine impact on the US collegiate season, reaching the NCAA Championship semi-finals and setting a PB of 2:04.49 in Stanford.
“I made a huge improvement, everything just worked out that year,” she says. “I was so excited to reach the NCAAs, it is such a prestigious event, although maybe I lost a bit of focus (because of the enormity of the event) and I wish I had another year to give it a crack.”
Her competitive year was also to end with a welcome bonus when she was selected for the six-strong Commonwealth Games-bound New Zealand 4x400m squad. Unfortunately, Katherine did not get the opportunity to compete in Glasgow, but it was an experience she would never forget.
“It was cool to go away (and experience) a top competition,’ she adds. “It definitely inspired me to reach future major championships.”
During her time at the University of Tulsa she met and become engaged to Welsh 1500m athlete Tom Marshall – a 3:39 performer at his best.
The pair married in early 2015 and Katherine (her maiden name was Camp) has opted to spend the majority of the year living in Cardiff where she has joined Tom’s training group coached by James Thie – a two-time former Commonwealth Games representative for Wales and fourth place finisher in the 1500m at the 2004 World Indoor Championships.
Under Thie, she has adjusted her training to include more endurance work which includes greater grass reps, hill reps and sand dune work. The training regime has unquestionably helped build her strength while she has also thrived in the competitive environment in the UK.
“There are so many good girls to compete against and the BMC (British Milers’ Club) meets and it means I don’t have to travel far for good quality races,” she says.
Enjoying what she describes as a “consistent” campaign in 2015 she reached the semi-finals of the World University Games – the same event where Katherine’s fellow Kiwi, Angie Petty, memorable struck gold –.and ended the year on a high by trimming 0.11 from her PB to run 2:04.17 in Watford.
Yet Katherine, who works as a massage therapist and is currently working with Super Rugby team, the Chiefs, last year enjoyed her best season to date slashing PB by and running a breakthrough time of 2:02.70 in Dublin to catapult to seventh on the all-time New Zealand women’s 800m lists.
“I was stoked,” she says of the performance in the Irish capital. “I was so nervous beforehand because I knew I was in really good shape. We went fast from the start and I knew it was going to go well.”
Currently back for the New Zealand summer Katherine has started her season with a bang claiming a shock victory over five-time New Zealand champion and Rio Olympian Angie Petty at Capital Classic by 0.33 to win in a time of 2:06:03.
It undoubtedly served as a huge confidence boost. However, the burning question now is, how can Katherine – a 2:02 athlete – bridge that gap and achieve qualification marks to make major championships? With the 2017 World Championship qualification time set at 2:01.00 she has a little way to go, but she is hopeful of achieving her international ambitions.
“I’ve been with James for two years now and I know it takes time to feel the benefit,” she admits. “I’ve stepped up the mileage (by an additional 15 miles per week) and I’ve also added some 60m sprint sessions into one or two sessions per week.
“My future goals are definitely Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games and this year, and I know it will be hard, it is to try to be New Zealand champion.”
With Petty standing in her way it will be no easy task, however, the 24-year-old has never lacked ambition.
“I love racing and it is exciting to travel (to compete) and meet new people,” she says. “I just love the thrill of running well – that is enough to keep me going. That 2:02 really fired me up to achieve my goals.”