With the 2015 Athletics New Zealand Road Relays Championships set to be held once again on the iconic Takahe to Akaroa course next month. Steve Landells takes a look at the key role the team manager plays in ensuring athletes enjoy a smooth ride.
The annual Athletics NZ Road Relay Championships may traditionally take place in October but the team manager’s planning process for the country’s premier team athletics event begins several months in advance.
Paul Hamblyn, team manager for North Harbour Bays, says his first step is to apply for grants in an effort to cover accommodation and travel costs to help subsidise this trip.
“We put together a list about three or four months out from the event to see who is available and up for selection and work out the numbers we are likely to take,” Paul explains. “If we get the funding in place and book the flights early, it can help save a lot of money.”
Due to the location of the 2015 Road Relays the University of Canterbury AC team manager, Craig Motley, has no accommodation or flight concerns, but just like his counterpart at Bays the preparation starts early.
“In late June I will send out an email to athletes to keep the date free,” explains Craig, who is seeking to gauge a handle on athletes’ availability.
Yet he admits this process is not without its frustrations.
“The biggest bugbear of being a manager is athletes not responding to emails,” he adds. “I’d much rather an athlete tell me as soon as possible that they can’t make it and that they are planning a family holiday to Rarotonga than not at all.”
Team and lap selection
The next stage of the process is finding eight likely candidates to fill the road relay slots and then fine tuning the race strategy to identify the athletes who are likely to make the best impact on the respective laps. It is a puzzle which does not always prove a straight forward task.
No formal time trials are needed at either the Bays or University clubs to determine the final make up of the team. However, both clubs use a number of key races to determine final selection. University lean heavily on performances at both the Canterbury Road Championships and National Road Championship. Yet Motley insists University have been flexible in their selection approach to the 2015 event.
“We recognised that because the Road Nationals this year were held in Tauranga on the North Island that many of our athletes who travelled to that event tended to be automatic selections anyway,” he adds. “So this year we also used the Governors Bay to Lyttleton 10km handicap road race to see what kind of shape our potential athletes for Road Relays were in.”
Paul explains Bays teams are selected off the back of a combination of cross country form and performances at National Road Championships, but availability was also key “because we often have a couple of late withdrawals from the team.”
Lap selection can also be a tricky process as both the length and individual characteristics of the legs can differ markedly.
The Takahe to Akaroa course has “no easy laps” according to Craig with many athletes “reluctant” to run laps one and seven because of their downhill nature.
The decision making process regarding which athletes are selected to run which lap is started with a Google Doc, which is sent by Craig to all prospective athletes.
“It gives them an opportunity to call for their lap preference and also which laps they definitely don’t want to do,” explains Craig. “Once we have all that info in and then with a bit of fiddling around we will put together our team order.”
Paul will adopt a similar strategy whereby he will try to match the best athlete for the most suitable leg as opposed to the stacking approach in which some teams load all their best athletes at the front-end of the race in an effort to be competitive from the gun.
“At the team meeting on the Friday night before the race we’ll discuss form and fitness and maybe reshuffle the order,” he admits.
The most stressful role for a team manager is not the planning, the selection or the strategy it is the logistics of making sure all the athletes are in the right place at the right time and make it to the start line.
Craig admits just because this year’s event is based in Canterbury, it does not make the logistical operation any easier. In fact, he admits it can make the process event trickier.
“At least on away trips we usually travel together and stay in the same hotel,” he explains. “For the Takahe to Akaroa race we meet in Takahe but we usually always have someone running late – you just hope it is not your first lap runner!”
He also recalls the 2010 Road Relays staged in New Plymouth when University held a dominate lead only for the team to potential run into trouble at the lap six to seven exchange.
“Jason Lawrence had run a blinder and came in a couple of minutes quicker than expected,” Craig explains. “Malcolm Hicks our seventh lap runner had just come out of the toilet with his track pants still on just as Jason was sprinting into the finish.
Somehow Malcolm managed to cover the 100m from the toilet to the start line in about 20 seconds, threw his track pants off and reached out his hands to meet Jason.”
For Paul the logistics of driving the athletes to and from the various legs can be a demanding challenge.
“Some of the laps are quite short and in the past we’ve had one or two disasters,” he explains. “Picking up the runners after they’ve finished and then making sure we have the next runner to the start line means there is a lot of going backwards and forwards and it is quite easy to mistime it. Some athletes like to be at the start line an hour before they race to go through their warm up routine. It is logistically quite tough.”
Enjoy the experience
The hard work and planning may stretch back several months but both Paul and Craig agree the effort is worth it. The pair are both steeped in the sport with the Bays team manager – a former fourth place finisher in the Commonwealth 1500m final - believing his efforts at Road Relays play a small part in motivating the next generation of athletes.
“This year I’ll be managing the junior men’s team and the unique team environment of the event is crucial in keeping youngsters involved in the sport,” insists Paul.
Craig also finds the experience of playing the role of team manager richly rewarding.
“As a club level guy, I love relays,” he explains. “It is very much a team bastion. You often see athletes motivated to run way faster than they have ever run before. These are athletes that really put in on the line at relays and have that New Zealand team sports mentality. It is great to see them rewarded.”
Athletics NZ Road Relay Championships