Above: Blair McWhirter (leading) on his way to the 2018 New Zealand marathon title in Rotorua.
Recently appointed New Zealand Marathon champion Blair McWhirter was a comparatively late-starter to running. However, as Steve Landells discovered, the Sumner Running Club athlete is more than making up for lost time.
It is a little hard to comprehend how Blair McWhirter is currently New Zealand marathon champion when taking into consideration his underwhelming 42.2km debut race.
Back in 2004 in his first marathon flirtation in Christchurch, Blair bluntly described the experience as “the hardest marathon I’ve ever done.”
“I remember being wrecked at around 27km and I started to walk,” recalls the then 21-year-old novice athlete. “Then the mum of a friend, who was supporting the race on the side of the road gave me a Tim Tam biscuit. It spurred me a little, but I was struggling and I plodded home in 3:38. I still remember the pain to this day.”
Fast forward 14 years to the 2018 Rotorua Marathon and the now 35-year-old enjoyed a very different experience. Breaking clear of the field at 27km he cantered to victory by almost a six-minute margin from Sjors Corporaal to scoop not only victory in the iconic marathon but also the New Zealand national title.
So, if someone had told him following his marathon debut he would later go on to be crowned national champion, would he have believed them?
“Probably not, no,” says Blair. “Back then, I was blissfully ignorant of how hard you have to work (to succeed in marathons),” says Blair.
Born and raised in Christchurch, cricket and rugby were his sports of choice as a child.
However, as the annual Coast to Coast race used to pass his childhood home he was always intrigued by the 243km endurance challenge, which comprises of cycling, kakaying and running, and he started training for the iconic South Island race.
After racing the event in 2007, and focusing for several years on multisport events, it was only later he naturally evolving into a running specialist.
“Of the three disciplines (cycling, kakaying and running), I found running the easiest and the one I was most naturally good at,” explains Blair. “I also planned to go overseas, and the thought of lugging a kayak and a bike around did not seem too appealing.”
From 2007 he exclusively focused on running and the results dramatically improved. Coming off a strong endurance base from his time as a multi-sport athlete, that year he ran a respectable personal best of 2:48 in the Christchurch Marathon.
Blair, who is self-coached, made small improvements in his marathon running over several years until making a significant breakthrough at the 2011 Buller Gorge Marathon, which he won in 2:34:59.
“I was training at the time for an ultramarathon (the Northburn 100 miler) and I only ran Buller to get some more miles under my belt,” he explains. “The race felt good, and that was the moment I thought, I could be on for a quite decent marathon future.”
Later that year he proved Buller was no fluke by finishing third in the Christchurch Marathon (2:34:30) before once again lowering his PB at the Auckland Marathon – for third again – in 2:33:04.
In 2012 his marathon personal best continued to tumble as he ran 2:28:44 to place second at the Rotorua Marathon before slashing a further three minutes plus from that mark with a 2:25:24 performance for third in the Christchurch Marathon.
The question is why the improvement?
“I knew at the beginning of 2012 I had six months in New Zealand, before my wife and I planned to live overseas, so I tried to get the most out of that time (in terms of his training),” he explains. “I was also motivated from the success of the previous year and I started tinkering with training to include double training days.”
In mid-2012 he and his wife, Rosie, who are both teachers, headed off on their overseas adventure which over the next five years in chronological order took place in periods in South Korea, England, the Philippines and England again before heading back home to Christchurch last winter.
While his running was limited in the hot and humid environment in the Philippines capital of Manila he embraced several big city marathons during his time away from his homeland racing big city marathons in Frankfurt, Germany, Seoul, South Korea and on three occasions the London Marathon.
Enjoying two very good performances on the streets of London, including a personal best of 2:22:38 for 17th in the 2017 non-elite race, he learned so much living and training in the UK where he represented Ilford AC and experienced formal coaching for the first time in his career.
“It was a trip into the unknown (in the UK) and I did want to get some professional help,” he explains. “I worked with a coach, Rob Sargent, for a couple of years.”
Self-coached once more but always open to try new running experiences he explains since the birth of his two-year-old son, Mahe, as time has become more precious he is happy to set his own running programs.
Since returning to Christchurch, Blair, who fits in nine sessions a week combining light runs, speed work, tempo runs and hill work, has reduced his training load from 100 miles to around 75-85 miles a week.
More recently he has experimented with longer, slower runs of up to 28 miles on a Sunday to build his strength, which he hopes will pay dividends in the latter stages of the race. Following his return to New Zealand, he was frustrated to place third in the Auckland Marathon last October, recording 2:25:59.
However, rather than dwell on the performance it acted as motivation as he turned his attention towards the 2018 Rotorua Marathon in May, which doubled as the New Zealand Marathon Championships.
“As soon as I moved back to New Zealand the aim was to win the New Zealand Marathon title,” he explains. “When I found out the next championships was in Rotorua, I was pleased because I knew it would be a course (undulating) that suited me.
Adopting a pre-race plan to break clear around the 27km mark he successfully carried out the strategy to cross the line for the race win in 2:29:00.
“It was a brilliant feeling,” he explains. “It made all those 4am wake alarms (for early morning runs) worth it. When I first started running I never dreamed something like this would ever happen. Hopefully by the time my son is older he will realise his old man was not too bad at running, and it will help act as motivation for Mahe to achieve his goals in life.”
Adopting a “mentally well-organised” and “methodical” approach to marathon running has stood the New Brighton-based athlete in good stead, but with his next target the Gold Coast Marathon in July he hopes snaring the New Zealand Marathon title is not the limit of his ambitions over the 42.2km distance.
“I really want to run under 2:20 for the marathon, and I’ll keep pushing as long as I know I am capable,” he says. “I believe I have a big chance of achieving that goal, and that is a big motivation.”
So why does the New Zealand Marathon champion love to run?
“I just love the lifestyle and everything about running,” he says. “I read running blogs and after I put my son to bed, I spend a silly amount of time watching running videos. Daniel Vettori (the former Black Caps captain) was known as a student of cricket, and I guess in a similar way I am a student of running.”