It will be 30 years next Monday since the IAAF World Cross Country Championships were staged at Auckland’s Ellerslie Racecourse. Steve Landells looks back on the reflections of three Kiwi athletes who featured that day.
Lesley Graham – Women’s Senior Race
For mum-of-three Lesley Graham the primary motivation for competing at the 1988 IAAF World Cross Country Championships was to “right the wrongs” of a disappointing debut in the event in Warsaw the previous year.
In temperatures of 0c, the wife of a dairy farmer from New Plymouth was a little overwhelmed by the experience and sought redemption on the more familiar territory of Ellerslie Racecourse, Auckland.
“It was the first time I had travelled overseas and I was very nervous,” she says of competing in Warsaw. “I ran with no energy. I was a little starstruck seeing all the top athletes I’d previously only read about.”
That day at the Sluzewiec Racecourse she struggled to 123rd - and last of the six New Zealand representatives - despite having won the New Zealand World Cross Trial at Trentham Park.
“I really wanted to make up for the disappointing run in Warsaw and give it a good go in Auckland,” she says.
Under the coaching of Jim Blair, she claimed a confidence-boosting victory at the World Cross Country Championships Trial at Ellerslie Racecourse in late-January.
However, her preparations were disrupted by the devastating Cyclone Bola which struck New Zealand in early March 1988 killing three people and causing untold damage.
“Bola had flattened New Plymouth and I recall Sonia Barry (who competed for New Zealand in the 3000m at the 1990 Commonwealth Games) and I training around Pukekura Park and it looked like a war zone. I recall my daughter, who was aged five at the time, couldn’t start school because the schools were closed and we couldn’t even milk the cows. It was a weird build up.”
Requested by team management to join the New Zealand team for a week in Auckland ahead of the 1988 World Cross Country Championships, she was initially reluctant to leave her family of three children - then aged seven, five and three – behind.
However, after deciding to follow team orders, she has no regrets enjoying a memorable week with the team.
Lesley recalls the team watching the NZ Ironman event in Auckland. She and several other team members visited Papatoetoe High School to speak to the students and she and the team also swam at Wenderholm Beach during a hot day leading up to the event.
“It was an amazing week with so many good memories,” says Lesley, who was one of the more senior members of the team, aged 29 at the time.
On the day of the race – which took place in temperatures in the mid-20s – she recalls jogging the course with team-mate Mary O’Connor – and remembers seeing the emergence of the Kenyan women.
“It was the first time we’d seen them travel and compete and I recall seeing these tiny ladies dressed in cardigans,” she explains.
Lesley planned to adopt a typically conservative start, preferring to finish strongly in the latter stages of the 6km race.
Starting out towards the back of the field, it was midway around the first lap when she realised she needed to quicken the tempo.
“I was running behind the Indian and Fijian athletes who were talking to one another,” she says. “It was at that point I thought, this is too slow, and I picked up the pace.
“A club colleague at New Plymouth said I must have been the fastest woman on the last lap,” she says. “I came scorching through.”
She crossed the line a respectable 56th - just under a minute-and-a-half behind race winner Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway – and fourth and final counter for the New Zealand team of six women.
“I jumped up and down after I had finished the race saying ‘I counted, I counted.’ The team manager Don Willoughby was very excited for me,” recalls Lesley, who went on to finish 43rd and 78th in her two further appearances at the World Cross Country Championships in 1989 and 1991.
That night she enjoyed a memorable post-race banquet hanging out with the Canadian and Australian athletes before she returned to New Plymouth the following day.
“I went from living the high life one night only the next morning to be back home with the kids working in the cow shed,” she says.
Women’s Senior Race – 6km
1. Ingrid Kristiansen (NOR) 19:04
2. Angela Tooby (GBR) 19:23
3. Annette Sergent (FRA) 19:29
27. Christine McMiken 20:05
33. Jackie Goodman 20:10
45. Barbara Moore 20:24
56. Lesley Graham 20:32
72. Mary O’Connor 20:46
82. Christine Pfitzinger 21:00
Richard Lindroos – Junior Men’s Race
It is hard to emphasise the incalculable benefits competing on the global stage at a World Cross Country Championships played on the life of the then raw 18-year-old athlete Richard Lindroos.
Competing at Auckland’s Ellerslie Racecourse gave him not only a rich competitive experience but also a glimpse into sport as a commercial enterprise, which has served him so well for much of his professional life.
One of New Zealand’s leading teenage talents of his time, he and his coach, Leo Steel, targeted the 1988 World Cross Country Championships for many months and adjusted the training and competitive schedule accordingly.
Principally a 1500m specialist, in late-1987 he opted to focus more on longer track distances, winning the 3000m title at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships and making his 5000m debut at the Australian Schools Championships, winning bronze.
By the time of the trials at Ellerslie Racecourse in late January he was in great shape and cruised into the six-strong junior team (with an additional two reserves) by placing second behind Ross Wilson.
Focusing on higher mileage than he typically would, Richard also wisely focused on hill training to prepare for the steep climb he and the other competitors would face each lap on the Ellerslie Park Racecourse.
“I remember looking for hills in Halswell Quarry in Christchurch for the six weeks or so before the World Cross,” he recalls.
Staying in the Quality Inn in Green Lane for a week with the New Zealand team before the race, Richard recalls having a ball with both junior and senior athletes. He attended assemblies at Auckland Grammar and Mt Albert Grammar schools. He witnessed the UK athletes suffering sunburn in the intense summer heat and also recalls a comment from the 1976 Olympic 1500m champion John Walker on a training run with the juniors on the Wednesday before race day that weekend which amused the Old Boys’ United athlete.
“At the end of the run he said, “right, we should stop twice a day training now.’ Only for me to say to Glenn (Le Gros) my fellow junior athlete, ‘but we never train twice a day’!”
Describing the noise from the New Zealand crowd on race day as ‘unparalleled’, he finished a proud 28th just three places behind the top Kiwi finisher in the 8km Junior race, Ross Wilson.
While pleased with his performance, Richard believes he may have finished a little higher up the field had he not ‘miscalculated’ the finish.
“I thought I had about a 1km to go, took off and got to 21st or 22nd in the field,” he says. “I remember going a little too early and dying over the last 300m or 400m, but I had to just hold on to do my best for the team. It was quite a different experience for me. We were used to running as individuals against once another but that day it was all about the team.”
In fact, he insists, the importance of competing on a global stage had many positive benefits for the junior team.
“It helped set the team up for not only sport, but life in general, he says. “Most of the team have gone on to be successful in whatever they have done. I know the exposure I had to high-level competition and the commercial side of the sport inspired me,” explains Richard whose company The Long Run for many years owned the Auckland Marathon and today manages the ITM Auckland 500 V8 Supercars event.
Richard returned to the World Cross Country Championships for a second crack at the junior race in Stavanger 12 months later and in thick mud finishing a highly creditable 25th – interestingly, one place ahead of 1996 Olympic 1500m champion and former world mile record-holder Noureddine Morceli of Algeria.
“Badly undercooked” in his sole appearance as a senior athlete at the World Cross Country Championships he finished 163rd – albeit as the top Kiwi finisher – at the 1993 edition in Amorebieta, Spain.
Developing a greater interest in the commercial side of the sport he retired from the competitive side of the sport in his mid-20s with ‘no regrets’ as he moved into the next phase of his life.
Now based in Auckland, Richard is one of the country’s most experienced event managers and he believes some 30 years on the city has the expertise to put on an IAAF event once again.
“It needs ATEED support, but there is no reason why it can’t happen,” he insists.
Men’s Junior Race – 8km
1. Wilfred Kirochi (KEN) 23:25
2. Alfonce Muinidi (KEN) 23:29
3. Bedile Kibret (ETH) 23:41
25 Ross Wilson 25:32
28 Richard Lindroos 25:38
49 Michael Johnston 26:19
50 Jeremy Forbes 26:21
64 Glenn Le Gros 26:48
76 Dean Ogilvie 27:27
John Bowden – Men’s Senior Race
John Bowden may have signed off his New Zealand international career in disappointing fashion at the 1988 World Cross Country Championships but he is compensated by the memory of experiencing the thrill of competing in front of his passionate home fans.
The New Zealand distance running stalwart competed at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in the 10,000m and made three previous World Cross appearances, including a best finish of 33rd at the 1984 edition in New Jersey.
At the World Cross Country Trials, however, he made an error of judgement by ‘miscalculating’ the number laps and finishing ninth overall - one place outside the top eight which would have guaranteed a spot in the team.
Nonetheless, he was handed a call up because of illness to trials winner Pete Renner and so he plotted a strategy - alongside his fellow Kiwi John Campbell - about how to attack the race.
“We set a target of trying to pass at least five people per lap (over six laps),” he said of the 12km race. “It had worked well in New Jersey and I hoped it would work again. I always had the goal of finishing in the top New Zealanders and that day I wanted to finish in the top 50.”
Based out of the team hotel for a week may have been a joy for those athletes based outside of the host city but for the Auckland athlete, it provided anything but the perfect build up.
Distracted by “family issues” and continuing to work part-time was far from the perfect preparation as he struggled to find the time for adequate rest in the final days before competition.
“I took my eye off the ball a little and probably didn’t do the small things well to aid my performance,” he admits.
Whatever distractions John may have endured in the countdown to race day were all washed away in a tsunami of pride and patriotism he felt when wearing the Black Singlet.
“The crowd were phenomenal,” says John who today works as national manager for Achilles NZ. “The cheers we received that day as New Zealand athletes was unique. It certainly acted as a huge boost.
“If we could ever stage the World Cross Country Championships again it would want to be at Ellerslie Racecourse,” he adds. “It worked well for sponsors and spectators. It was a big test for athletes attacking that hill every lap and I remember the cheers from the packed grandstand. It was the best course I experienced at a World Cross.”
Unfortunately, despite the passionate support of the home fans it could not lift John to achieve his goal of a top 50 finish as he crossed the finish line in 77th – albeit as the third Kiwi finisher.
Disappointed with his last performance in the Black Singlet, he nonetheless has happy memories of enjoying a post-race barbecue at his then girlfriend’s house with some of the American team including Pat Porter (28th that day) and two-time former World Cross champion Craig Virgin.
“I have many memories of the friendships I formed over the years competing at the World Cross,” he says. “In those days, we wanted to thrash each other on the track but we were all best friends afterwards. To get to experience this (the World Cross) in Auckland was very special.”
Men’s Senior Race – 12km
1. John Ngugi (KEN) 34:32
2. Paul Kipkoech (KEN) 34:54
3. Kipsubai Koskei (KEN) 35:07
36 John Campbell 36:35
74 Chris Pilone 37:17
77 John Bowden 37:19
90 Tom Birnie 37:31
94 Phillip Clode 37:34
103 Chris Tobin 37:40
110 Derek Froude 37:52
117 Rod Dixon 38:03
171 Ken Moloney 40:28