Newly crowned U20 2019 NZ Cross Country Champ Kirstie Rae has produced outstanding results both internationally and domestically this year. Steve Landells chats to the gifted young Wellington Harrier to find out more.
Traditionally regarded as the most competitive endurance races on the planet, the IAAF World Cross Country Championships represents one of the most demanding examinations in the sport.
Facing an army of world-class East African talent from Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia plus the cream of distance running talent from North Africa, Europe, Japan and the USA there is absolutely no hiding place.
All of which makes the achievement of teenage Kiwi Kirstie Rae, who placed 17th in the women’s U20 race at the most recent edition in March, all the more commendable.
Under closer scrutiny the 17-year-old Wellington Harrier finished behind only three non-African runners (two Japanese and one Australian) and ahead of all the European and North American entrants - which puts into context the quality of her performance in Aarhus, Denmark.
“The race has given me a huge amount of confidence for the future,” explains Kirstie. “I couldn’t quite catch the Aussie (who finished 16th) but it was great to put together a good race in such a big event.”
Born and bred in the Wellington suburb of Seatoun on the east coast of the Miramar Peninsula, sport has played a big role in Kirstie’s life for as long as she can remember. The youngest of three sisters she participated in surf lifesaving, swimming and netball and it was competing in the former sport where her interest in running was first ignited.
“I first remember running on the beach in flag races at surf carnivals,” she explains. “I later recall going on ten minute runs with the teachers at primary school and I loved it. That got me hooked.”
Joining Wellington Harriers as a Year Six student – where she was first coached by Geoff Henry and Julie Richards – a little later she perhaps first revealed her exciting ability by winning the Inter Regional Schools Cross Country Championships in her native city.
“It was a pretty big moment for me,” she explains. “I was so proud to wear the Wellington singlet and that showed me I had a talent for running.”
Kirstie was coached by Geoff and Julie – who gave her a great foundation in the sport – for three years but as a Year Nine student she hooked up with former New Zealand Olympic 5000m runner Anne Hare.
Now taking the sport more seriously, Kirstie says the switch to Anne made sense and for the next couple of years she carefully managed her development
“Anne was really good at not pushing me too hard and developing me slowly,” she says. “This meant that I didn’t suffer burn out or pick up injuries. She made training really fun and I was thankful she did that.”
As a Year Nine student at Wellington East Girls College she earned a bronze medal at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Dunedin.
The performance was memorable personally for the youngster but it was also special because she contributed to a fantastic team performance for her school.
“I was the youngest athlete on the team and I had lots of older athletes to look up to,” she explains. “Tessa Hunt also won a medal in the junior girls race and Kelsey Forman (former World U18 New Zealand representative) won a medal in the senior girls. For us all to win a medal was awesome.”
Twelve months later she returned to the same event as a junior girl and again won bronze. Meanwhile, later that year she placed seventh in the 800m at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Track & Field Championships.
Yet not feeling very well during the championships, which were held at Auckland’s Trusts Arena, it was discovered Kirstie was struggling with low iron levels.
Taking almost six months rest she found introducing an iron-rich diet into her nutritional programme and taking regular iron supplements fixed the problem and on return to the sport in mid-2017 she hooked up with a new coach, Alastair Leslie.
Feeling she needed a fresh start to make the next step forward, Kirstie has little doubt the move has been positive.
“It is great to be part of a training group of many ages and backgrounds,” explains Kirstie of the group which includes fellow 2019 World Cross Country representatives Tessa Hunt and Toby Gualter and masters athlete Tina Faulkner.
“Alastair is quite a quiet guy but very smart,” she explains. “He is a humble guy who has managed to find that perfect balance between training being both fun and pushing me hard, but never too hard.”
Under Alastair’s canny guidance she enjoyed a breakthrough track and field campaign in 2017-18. At the New Zealand Secondary Schools Track & Field Championships in Hastings she claimed 1500m bronze and placed fifth in the 800m – as her best friend and training partner, Tessa Hunt, clinched gold in both races. Three months later at the New Zealand club nationals she brought home U18 1500m silver to finish behind Aimee Ferguson.
Her confidence rising she earned a silver medal at last year’s New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Championships behind Hannah O’Connor before taking the decision to target the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus, Denmark in March.
“I was attracted to the World Cross because of the fact it was an IAAF event and they would be top athletes of all ages there,” she explains. “I knew it would be an awesome experience and it would also give me a good taste of international competition.”
Training an average of 50-60km every week, Kirstie also decided to tackle longer distances during the 2018-19 track season in preparation for the 6km distance she would tackle in Denmark.
She started her campaign with a disappointing performance at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships; placing fourth in both the 1500m and 3000m.
However, a sub 17:13.45 outing – well below the required standard of 17:30 for World Cross Country Championships consideration – on her 5000m debut in Auckland later that month suggested she was in good form and the quality performances continued.
This year she stormed to a 4:29.93 1500m PB at the Porritt Classic and a silver medal at the New Zealand U20 3000m final. Then at the New Zealand Championships she romped to an emphatic gold medal success in the U20 5000m final, recording an impressive 16.44.29
Winning selection for the New Zealand U20 team to compete in Aarhus, the teenager enjoyed an experience of a lifetime. She had dinner one night with world steeplechase silver medallist Courtney Frerichs and also met her US team-mate and 2017 New York Marathon winner Shalane Flanagan. Meanwhile, the on course atmosphere was unforgettable.
“It was pretty incredible,” she recalls. “There was a massive beer tent with fans yelling and cheering. “The course had a mud pit, a water pit and a Viking corner with fans all dressed as Vikings.”
“They’d made such an interesting course including a big hill on top of a museum. A big cannon with blue flames went off at the start of the race and there were so many spectators.”
Tackling three 2km laps, Kirstie was sat around 30th after the first lap and feeling the pace comfortable. On lap two the leading Africans stepped on the gas and gradually extended their advantage. However, Kirstie was far from overawed and slowly moved through the field.
“The hills started to hurt and the soft sand was tricky because I started to sink into it,” she explains. “The final hill up the museum was a struggle and I was happy to get to the finish line.”
Going into the race with few expectations and also, surprisingly, few nerves – she crossed the line 17th.
“It was a big shock,” she explains. “It was very pleasing to finish 17th and it gave me a huge amount of confidence.”
Kirstie has taken that new-found belief into the domestic cross country season and she claimed an comprehensive victory in the 4km senior girls race at last month’s New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships by a huge victory margin of 39 seconds.
To be able to win her first gold in the championship was a” good feeling” according to the Year 13 student, who now turns her attention to next month’s New Zealand Cross Country Championships in Upper Hutt and the Australian Cross Country Championships
Boasting a strong work ethic coupled with the important skill of being able “to listen to her body” term the rising endurance star is next year looking to target the World U20 Championships in Nairobi and also hopes to take up a US scholarship.
Yet rather than pure records and achievements, Kirstie fundamentally runs for much simply pleasures.
“I just love putting on my shoes and going out for a run,” she explains. “It doesn’t matter what pace I’m running, I just love the feeling and the satisfaction running gives me.”