Above: Liam Back (right) heading to the finish of the NZ Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships.
Teenager Liam Back has won a glut of medals on the national stage over the past 12 months or so. Steve Landells chats to the 16-year-old Athletics Wanganui athlete about his rapid rise and future development.
It was going out on training runs with his triathlon-loving mother which kick-started Liam Back’s passion for running.
Living in West Auckland at the time, Liam fondly recalls hitting the running trails aged “11 or 12” around Henderson’s Trusts Arena with his mum, Lesa Davidson, as the contributory factor in sparking his interest in the sport.
“I kind of liked the sport before I knew I was good at it,” explains Liam, whose mum competed in her age-group at the 2015 World Triathlon Championships. “It was from there I decided to join Waitakere (City) Athletic Club, and I started to do a few local events.”
Initially, featuring as a 400m and 800m runner he recalls the vital work his first coach, Mike Marsden, did to tidy up his ragged running style and he also remembers winning a 400m silver medal in the Trans-Tasman Championships in Auckland – a performance which acted as a huge early confidence boost.
After a short period unsuccessfully flirting with triathlon – “I was never that good on the bike or in the swimming pool” - he then spent a stint with Wellington-based coach Don Dalgleish, who convinced Liam to move up in distance before he opted to switch schools from St Peter’s College in Auckland to Wanganui Collegiate in Manawatu.
Principally making the decision to link up with their strong running programme under the guidance of the school’s influential coach, Alec McNab, the move has proved an inspiration for Liam’s running development.
“Alec is very good at what he does,” explains Liam. “He’s very tough but also very precise. His training is always spot on. He also doesn’t let us worry about training. He will only tell us what session we are doing on the day of training which relieves the pressure and allow us to perform at the highest level.”
Besides prospering under Alec’s tutelage, he also has benefited from working in a strong ten-person training group at Wanganui Collegiate.
“It’s good to not have to run by myself or have to lead all of the sessions,” he explains. “The group also helps lift me up, if I’m feeling down or a bit rubbish (ahead of a training session).”
Running five days a week with one circuit session, Liam started to feel the benefit of Alec’s training programme in the winter of 2017 when claiming a shock victory in the Dawn Cup – in what was his last competitive outing ahead of the New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships of that year.
Working under a structured training programme set by his coach, that performance “opened his eyes” as to what was possible.
“That is when I first realised I actually had a chance of doing quite well at nationals,” he explains.
He then delivered on his hunch by running out an impressive four-second winner in the junior boys’ cross country at Ascot Golf Course in Christchurch
“I put my mark on the course where I wanted to launch my winning bid, and I did that,” he says. “It was pretty much a perfect race for me.”
Liam proved his cross country success was no accident by enjoying a medal-laden 2017-18 domestic season. The Athletics Wanganui athlete earned an impressive gold medal in the 1500m at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships before just 40 minutes later winning a silver medal in the steeplechase.
It was an impressive feat of endurance and an achievement he reflects on with a huge amount of pride.
“I prioritised the 1500m but only having 10-15 minutes to warm up for the steeplechase was not long,” he says. “I remember feeling sick with heat stroke before the race and debated whether to pull out of the race. I decided to compete and I still don’t know how I came away with a silver medal (in the steeplechase).”
Success continued as he wiped almost six seconds from his 1500m personal best in Whanganui in February, running 3:56.80 before winning the U18 1500m, 3000m and 2000m steeplechase treble at the New Zealand Championships in Hamilton.
“I was especially pleased with the 1500m as I didn’t think I had it in me to claw it back,” he recalls of the achievement.
After performing so admirably on the domestic circuit, the teenager then made his international debut competing for New Zealand at the World Schools Cross Country Championships in Paris in April.
Competing against athletes up to two years older he was unsure of what to expect and he recalls an attack of pre-race nerves added to his apprehension.
“I didn’t feel the best on race day,” he explains. “I was feeling very nervous and not everything went according to plan during warm up. I couldn’t stop freaking out about the race.”
Thankfully, once the race started the nerves dissipated and Liam produced a proud performance to finish 16th and second Kiwi finisher behind Sam Tanner – who took the silver medal.
Describing himself as “pretty happy” with the display and still eligible to compete at the 2020 World Schools Cross Country Championships, Liam, crucially, took on board some big lessons from his Parisian experience.
“I remember the race had a lot of sharp corners, which I found tough because I have a long stride,” he explains. “I often had to slow down and chop my stride to take the turns which wasted a lot of energy. It was definitely a learning curve, and it taught me that I probably needed to take the corners a little wider to maintain my flow.”
Since then Liam has continued to impress and at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships in Taupo he won a silver medal in the senior boys’ race – finishing eight seconds behind Sam Tanner.
“I was happy to get a good race in,” he says. “I was not sure what I was capable of over 6km.”
“I’m amazed at how quickly I’ve progressed since I started at (Wanganui) Collegiate. I only thought that maybe in a few years’ time, if I was lucky, I might have some national medals.”
Hoping for a top 15 place at the Australian Cross Country Championships in August and to win a medal as a senior boy at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Dunedin later this year are his future goals – but the next question might be, in which event?
Displaying a range of talents from 1500m, 3000m and steeplechase – his versatility is a clear strength, but even he is a little unsure of which discipline he is best suited.
“I race all events from the 400m to half marathon and I enjoy them all,” he says. “I don’t yet have one I specialise in. I enjoy running as many events as I can, otherwise I can get a bit bored.”
In the longer-term the teenager has aspirations to win a scholarship to a US University but what does he feel his running qualities are?
“I think I have strong endurance and an ability to really hold on to a pace,” explains Liam.
“But for me running is all about getting out there, enjoying the scenery,” he adds. “I love the relaxed feeling running gives you.”