Photo Credit: Michael Dawson
Murdoch McIntyre is set to appear in the New Zealand U20 team at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships on Saturday. Steve Landells caught up with the ambitious teenager to talk about his rise through the ranks and hopes for the future.
Murdoch McIntyre is an athlete mature beyond his years.
Aged just 17 the talented endurance athlete has already experienced a Youth Olympic Games in Argentina, a World Schools Cross Country Championships in Paris and two training trips to the hotbed of distance running in Kenya.
Yet the diligent Aucklander with the unquenchable thirst for knowledge does not intend to stop there, with the next step on his never-ending pursuit of athletics intelligence coming at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus this weekend.
Born and raised in Auckland’s North Shore, running was in the family blood. His grandfather, Alex Shaw, scooped the 1961 New Zealand 3000m steeplechase title, yet throughout primary and intermediate school rugby was Murdoch’s sport of choice.
“I was a forward and played flanker,” recalls Murdoch. “I was always outside playing the game with neighbours and skill-wise I was good.”
However, after arriving at Westlake Boys High School and possessing a slight physical build not entirely suited to the demands of rugby, he switched tack to focus on running.
A useful runner in his younger days and good enough to finish 21st at the Auckland Intermediate Cross Country Championships he was excited by the possibilities of running faster under the coaching of Thenus Strydom, who leads a powerhouse athletics programme at Westlake.
Training in a structured environment for the first time as a year nine student he dramatically improved and at the 2015 New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships he placed an impressive third in Dunedin.
“It was hard to set place goals or expectations as a year nine student,” he recalls. “I knew I was running well alongside the older students but it was still a surprise to take third.”
Encouraged by this performance and approaching the sport with even greater motivation, 12 months later he returned to the event to take out the junior boys title as a Year 10 student in Rotorua.
Determined to further improve in early 2017 he joined the training group of Arthur Lydiard disciple and former Olympic marathon bronze medallist Barry Magee.
Enjoying further success under the veteran octogenarian coach earning silver – eight seconds behind reigning New Zealand senior 1500m champion Sam Tanner - at the New Zealand Cross Country Championships in Auckland added further gloss to his growing reputation.
Meanwhile, he ended the year running an impressive 5000m PB of 14:33.04 at the Night of Fives in his home city of Auckland - a performance good enough to earn a top 20 spot in the U18 2017 world lists for the distance.
However, following the break up due to various factors of many members within training squad after one year under Barry’s coaching he opted to hook up with Vaughan Craddock.
“It was a tough decision to leave Barry,” explains Murdoch. “It was never my intention to be on the market for another coach but we’d lost quite a few members of the training group and I knew to fulfil my potential I needed to train with other people.
“Vaughan Craddock had a cool squad and his culture and that of the squad aligns with my thinking. He has set up a very positive environment for the athletes. It is very structured and he operates on a really smart level.”
Part of the same training group as 800m exponents Michael Dawson and Flynn Palmer as well as 2:18 marathoner Ciaran Faherty has set up a “special dynamic.”
Training out of Mt Smart Stadium or Owairaka for track sessions and Auckland Domain and around the streets of his family home in Devonport has proved the ideal recipe for further development.
Last year the slender athlete earned a New Zealand U18 3000m silver medal before heading over the ditch to win bronze in the Australian equivalent.
He then enjoyed an overseas adventure to compete and place an impressive fifth in the schools race at the World Schools Cross Country Championships in Paris before returning home to target the Youth Olympic Games later that year.
“I’d heard from Dan Hoy an old Westlake Boys student about his experiences competing at the Youth Olympic Games (Dan won silver and bronze medals in the triathlon at the 2014 Nanjing YOG). And it sounded a pretty cool opportunity to compete at a multisport event alongside basketball players, hockey players and rock climbers.”
However, his hopes of qualifying for the quadrennial event in Buenos Aries suffered a jolt when on the eve of the YOG trials held as part of the Melanesian Championships in Vanuatu he picked up food poisoning from a dodgy vegetable curry.
Despite feeling far from his best he still managed to place second in a respectable 6:10.23, finishing more than three-and-a-half seconds behind Australian Patrick Thygesen. However, Thygesen’s non-selection for the Australian team and with one athlete per region invited it was Murdoch who was on his way to South America.
Enjoying a positive build-up with victory in the U18 Australian Cross Country Championships, which doubled as the Oceania Championships, on the Sunshine Coast in August he then had to prepare for the unusual format of YOG in which he competed in a one-off steeplechase and one-off cross country race, where his overall finishing position would be determined by his placing in both events.
“I was focused on the steeplechase and saw it as a cool opportunity to run the cross country and measure myself up against some of the best in the world across different events”, remarks Murdoch at his YOG strategy.
“I was actually seeded dead last in the steeplechase but Vaughan, who was a former steeplechaser, was very good at preparing me and teaching me how to run the event.”
Placing 12th and smashing his 2000m steeplechase PB by more than eight-and-a-half seconds in 5:55.07 (and setting a NZ U17 record) was a supreme effort by the teenage Kiwi. Yet perhaps of greater satisfaction was the way he refused to panic when faced with a wall of 18 competing athletes.
“I’d never experienced racing against so many people and not being able to see the barriers,” he explains. “It was quite different but I was proud of how I handled that.”
Finishing fifth in the cross country (against his fellow steeplechasers) for ninth overall was a great effort on behalf of Murdoch and despite the long and tiring campaign he managed to finish 2018 on a high by winning the New Zealand Secondary Schools 2000m steeplechase title, attaining a World Cross Country Championship nomination courtesy of a 31:13.63 10,000m run and chipping 1.20 seconds from his 5000m best with a 14:31.84 run at the Night of Fives in Auckland.
After taking a well-earned rest out following his exertions during a hectic 2018 campaign he then explored the opportunity to spend five weeks with the Robertson twins – Zane and Jake – in Iten, Kenya earlier this year.
Two years earlier, Murdoch has spent time in Kenya as a 15-year-old as part of a group from Westlake Boys High School. Intrigued to grow his knowledge base further in his most recent trip to East Africa he spent time living at Zane’s house (note, Zane spent much of the five weeks in Ethiopia), training at high altitude and observing the Robertson twins firsthand.
“Personally I struggled a little with the altitude and never really adjusted to it, which was unfortunate but I still put in a decent training block,” he admits.
“It was cool to be given the chance to see how the pros live. I trained largely separately from the Robertsons but spent a lot of time hanging out with them. I did a couple of easy runs with them, which were some of the hardest runs I’ve ever done!
“The biggest things I learned during my time there was the importance of recovery. Not just resting but nutrition, hydration and sleeping – they don’t muck around. They look into every facet of their recovery.”
Taking a competitive break since the Night of Fives in December, Murdoch has returned to New Zealand from East Africa and has prepared well for the World Cross Country Championships in Denmark.
Delighted to be given the further expand his running experiences, he is relishing the prospect of comparing himself to the world’s best and holds realistic expectations.
“It is a tricky to talk of finishing positions and people have said I won’t be up the front because of the East Africans. Yet I’m not too concerned about that. Firstly, I’m excited just to be in Denmark to race them and, secondly, I’m excited to race the Americans, Australians, the Brits and other Europeans. It will cool to have a race within a race and to it excites me to really find out where I sit (in the world).”
In the longer term Murdoch has targeted the 2020 World U20 Championships in Kenya before a desire to embark on a four-year US scholarship. The 2024 Olympic Games in Paris is also a future ambition but for the North Harbour Bays athlete he runs for the sheer joy of it.
“Running is not complicated like doing a maths problem,” he explains. “For the lack of a better phrase “you just do it.” I enjoy the fact it is super simple.”