Above: Mel Aitken in winning form in the Masters Women's race at the NZ Cross Country Championships.
Having only made her competitive debut in 2012, distance runner Mel Aitken has more than made up for lost time. Steve Landells chats to the diminutive South Islander about her unlikely running journey and her chances for the forthcoming Lion Foundation Rotorua Marathon.
As a genuine contender for the women’s elite race at next weekend’s Rotorua Marathon, it is hard to comprehend that Mel Aitken only started her competitive career four years ago.
Yet in that short space of time, the now 39-year-old has built up a reputation as one of the country’s leading distance runners with a string of eye-catching performances on both the road and off-road scene.
Describing herself as an “unathletic kid” she only started running after becoming frustrated by the “waste of petrol” used on her the relatively short 7km trip from her home to work while living in her native Dunedin.
So after buying a GPS watch she decided to keep the car in the garage and alternatively cover the distance by running to work. Gradually building up her fitness levels, she became curious as to how she might perform in an organised race and entered the 23km off-road Peninsula Challenge. She finished third and was quickly hooked.
“I surprised myself with how I ran, as I had absolutely no expectation,” she recalls of her competitive running debut a month or so shy of her 35th birthday.
Four to five months later and by now running an average of 80km a week she opted to make her marathon debut in Christchurch. Operating on “a very basic” training programme she ran a time of 3:20 to finish fifth and impressively launch her marathon career.
“It was such a boost, and to this day it was one of the proudest moments of my running career,” admits Mel. “It was a massive event and to climb the podium, because the podium went down to fifth place, was amazing. That performance gave me the drive to go harder and improve in future.”
Born and raised in Dunedin, from the age of ten, Mel, competed in a range of equestrian events and had no interest in athletics.
Standing at just 157.5cm tall “the 0.5 is very important” she jokes. “I never did school sports days and I would prefer to ride my horse.”
In an effort to qualify for the police in 1999 she improved her overall fitness with some running but her athletics journey did not begin for a further 13 years. After rising through the ranks as a police inspector – she is currently based in Greymouth as a relieving commander for the West Coast – she has some key attributes which she believes have played their part in her running development.
“Being committed and doing well is part of my nature,” she explains. “I’m a very goal-driven person so if I’m not doing horse riding well, I need to be doing something well. When I picked up the running I thought I am not too bad at it, so I started to challenge myself.”
Competing in a range of off-road and road running events she has enjoyed year on year progress.
Just one year after making her marathon debut in Christchurch she returned to “The Garden City” and ran a time of 3:02:42. Then the on her Rotorua Marathon debut in 2014, Mel dipped below three hours for the first time, placing seventh in a time of 2:59:31.
“It was my first time I’d competed in a New Zealand champs and when I lined up at the start it was a little intimidating,” she says. “Yet after chatting to Gabby O’Rourke, who was my running idol, she was lovely and made he feel far relaxed. To run under three hours that day was a defining moment for me.”
There was another element to the day which struck a chord with Mel and that was the terrific on course atmosphere.
“I loved the fact that on different parts of the course people were playing drums, it was cool – a huge celebration,” she explains. “That was a great incentive for me to come back for this year’s race.”
Training most weeks between an average of 120-140km per week she is up out of the door at 5am for her daily run – which often covers a minimum distance of 20km per day.
Self-coached, Mel takes her training knowledge from what she reads on the internet and when asked would she ever opt for a coach, she admits: “It is always in the back of my mind. Maybe I’ve been a bit lazy to find out who the best person is to approach. Yet I’m probably happy (with no coach) as I’m improving as I’m going.”
Benefiting from the increasing training base of the last four years she says she made another significant leap forward in her career since 2014 after completing cutting all refined sugars and processed foods from her diet.
Last year this was underlined by the fact she ran a blistering marathon PB of 2:49:13 to finish second in the Christchurch Marathon.
A big fan of off-road racing but with her primary goal the marathon, Mel has always set the bar high in both her professional or running career and she has set herself a big target for the 2016 edition of the Rotorua Marathon on April 30.
“It might be a bit ambitious – because I know the course is not flat – but I would love to get a sub 2:50,” explains the Leith Harrier, who is married to Steve, who himself started running nine months ago.
Mel may now be aged 39, but as a relative newbie to the sport she is confident her best is yet to come and she has set herself a clear target for the future.
“For me being able to represent New Zealand at running in some shape or form and put on the silver fern would be incredible,” she says. “In terms of representing New Zealand in the marathon it is going to be tough, but personally it is about getting better at what I do. Who knows what will happen in the future.”
Yet in her 17 years of policing has she ever used her running talent for the public good?
“A couple of years ago at Wingatui race course (in Dunedin) on the big race of the day a lad decided to streak down the course at the same time as the horses started,” she says laughing at the memory. “It was my job to give him chase, but as he only has his socks on he was not hard to catch him!”
Yet having started running at the relatively advanced age of 34 does she have any regrets about her late introduction to the sport?
“I think I’m really lucky that through my police work I’ve learned a lot around leadership, resilience and mental strength. I’ve been able to apply that to my running and vice-versa and that has made me a better athlete.”