Above: Annika Pfitzinger on her way to victory at the 2017 NZ Half Marathon Championships in Kerikeri.Photo by Faye Smith
Annika Pfitzinger claimed her maiden national senior title in Kerikeri earlier this month. Steve Landells chats to the recently minted NZ Half-Marathon champion about her journey to the title and living as the daughter to a pair of very special athletes.
Hailing from an aristocratic running heritage some may argue that it is no great surprise Annika Pfitzinger is a national champion athlete.
With mum, Christine, a former Olympic 3000m runner for New Zealand and dad, Pete, a two-time US Olympian in the marathon, Annika’s genetic advantages are beyond dispute.
However, what should not be overlooked is both her perseverance and sheer resilience which have forged just as important a path in her career development as any perceived natural gifts.
Born and raised on the North Shore, Annika recalls she was predictably exposed to running from a young age.
“My dad was only telling me the other day that just two months after I was born he was pushing me around the track in a pram while my mother carried out a speed session,” she says with a trademark laugh.
Aged just five she joined North Harbour Bays Athletics and quickly developed into a regular cross country winner as a Long Bay Primary School student.
With her father representing the US in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Marathons (he placed 11th and 14th respectively) and mother competing at the latter Games held in Seoul (she failed to progress beyond the heats) Annika had a rich source of running inspiration to draw upon.
However, she says it was aged “nine or ten” and watching her father claim victory in the 1984 US Olympic Trials in a PB 2:11:43, which provided the fuel for her future running ambitions.
“I was inspired,” she says of that performance. “He took off at halfway only for the field to catch him in the final mile. But he didn’t give up and he outkicked Alberto Salazar (the former New York Marathon and controversial US coach) to win. It was very exciting.”
Coached by Chris Pilone since the age of 13, Annika continued to develop and in 2008 won a New Zealand Secondary Schools 800m silver medal behind Angie Petty, who has since gone to represent her country at Olympic and Commonwealth Games.
The following year the Bays Cougars athlete took bronze before she finally won Secondary Schools 800m gold in Hastings in her final year as a Rangitoto College student.
“It was pretty cool (to win gold),” she recalls. “I went into that race as a favourite. It was mine to lose.”
As a junior, the talented athlete earned more success winning national under-20 1500m gold and 800m silver in 2012 before the following year securing her maiden national senior medal with a silver medal in the New Zealand Cross Country Championships.
Yet if Annika saw this as a gateway to further success she was cruelly mistaken as shortly after podium finish in Hamilton she picked up a stress fracture of the foot which ushered in an horrific streak of five stress fractures and two stress reactions over a four-year period.
“Stress fractures have been my nemesis and because of this it has been hard to get any consistent training going,” she says. “It got to the point I was always worried when the next one was coming. I couldn’t run 50km a week without breaking down. Injury sucks.”
She became so frustrated last year she switched her emphasis to triathlons, a sport she had dabbled at in her younger days. Returning to cycling and swim training has proved a challenge but she finished fifth in her senior triathlon debut in Tauranga 12 months ago and in May finished a respectable 11th – finishing with a 1:36 half-marathon – in the 70.3 Boulder event in the US over the half-ironman distance.
Running no more than 60-70km a week but combining it with swimming and cycling training has helped build her strength and has served as a genuine benefit to her running.
“I feel strong again and my body feels more robust,” she says. “At the moment I run four days and then I have one day off. I feel if I need to skip a running day I’m not losing any fitness because I have cycling and swimming to train for.”
Training regularly at the Auckland Domain and in the Waitakere Ranges she has seen gradual improvements this year and after experiencing an encouraging 7x1km speed session the week before the Kerikeri Half Marathon, which doubled as the New Zealand Half Marathon Championships, she decided to head north and chance her arm over the 21.1km distance.
The Massey University Masters student in management came into the event with a half-marathon PB of 77:50 set in Whangamata two years ago but with a longest training run this year of 21.4km she was unsure of how she would fare in the latter stages.
She need not have worried. Running her first half marathon in two years and despite facing a stiff headwind for much of the race she claimed her first senior title in 75:58 to slash almost two minutes from her previous best.
“To win my first national title following limited preparation felt really good,” she says. “I surprised myself. All I kept thinking in the final 5km was don’t stuff this up! I’m almost there.”
Post-race her long-time coach Chris Pilone gave her a hug, her mother, owner of 13 NZ titles, who was present, was elated as was her father, who is currently serving as the Acting Chief Executive of High Performance Sport NZ.
Which brings us to mum and dad what role have they played in Annika’s running career?
“They have always been very supportive but never pushed me into the sport,” she insists. “I’ve always enjoyed running. It is something I’ve always wanted to do. On a day to day basis my mum has more of a role (with Annika’s athletics). I’ve had injury issues and my mum is very good at telling me to take a back step. My dad takes more of a laidback approach but if I ask him he will offer his input.”
Currently living with her parents in Torbay she has access to their extensive knowledge base but in terms of her personality and running qualities, which parent does she most closely mirror?
“My dad was known as a very tough training partner but as soon as training is done he is friends once more with everyone and I’m very like that,” she says. “Like me, mum suffered her fair share of injuries and showed good perseverance, so I guess I’m like both of them.
“In terms of running qualities my mum, who is still the New Zealand record holder for the women’s mile, specialised in 800m to 3000m and my dad the marathon and, to be honest, my strengths are somewhere in the middle between 5km and the half-marathon.”
For the immediate future, she plans to focus on triathlon but running is her first love and it is never far from her thoughts.
“I’m going to try my hand at triathlon for the next year to see if my swimming improves to the level it needs to be,” she explains. “But I am going to keep competing in road races and one day I ‘d love to be able to go back to full-time running. It is my passion.”