Recently minted New Zealand Half-Marathon champion Sam Wreford has been a mainstay on the domestic road running scene for more than a decade. Steve Landells caught up with the South Islander to talk through his career so far and why he believes his marathon best is yet to come.
To New Zealand distance runner Sam Wreford “age is just a number.”
Now aged 35 and after a lengthy distance-running career, the Timaru athlete is currently enjoying the best form of his life.
After setting a new personal best of 2:16:03 to win the Buller Gorge Marathon in Westport in February and more recently added the New Zealand Half-Marathon crown in Dunedin, Sam believes he is riding the crest of wave and is looking ahead to the future with optimism.
“I remember Haile Gebrselassie (the two-time former Olympic 10,000m champion and former world marathon record-holder from Ethiopia) saying age is just a number and I think running is about mindset,” explains Sam.
“Over the years I’ve had limited races because of injuries, so I haven’t ground myself down and, to be honest, I still feel my best years are ahead of me.”
Born in Timaru to a running family – his father David was a former school 100m record-holder and mum, Andrea, recently finished second in the 60-64 age group at the New Zealand Half-Marathon Championships – Sam first discovered an ability to run when winning primary school cross country races.
He later also performed well in the middle-distances at both the Colgate Games and New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships – however born just two months apart from Nick Willis he found the man who has gone on to win two Olympic 1500m medals frequently stood in the way of Sam winning top honours.
“He was a class act,” Sam said of Nick. “I was in the same races as him but he was in another league. He had the kind of speed I could only dream of.”
Sam did win minor medals behind Nick at both Colgate Games and later at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships, however, he does recall winning the national 800m/1500m double at Colgate Games one year “only because Nick was crook that weekend.”
Under the mentorship of Kevin O’Sullivan throughout his time at Timaru Boys High School, Sam credits the key role he played in his development.
However, his senior career has been illuminated, he believes, by the inspirational qualities of her current coach, Barry Magee, whom he connected with more than a decade ago.
“I remember I was looking for a coach and at the time Arthur Lydiard passed through Timaru promoting his book shortly before he passed away (in 2004),” adds Sam. “I was aware of Arthur’s training methods and I after I did a search I discovered Barry. I knew he was the one for me and I really enjoyed his coaching.
“We have gone beyond a pure runner/coach relationship in that we have a really great friendship. We just gel.”
With octogenarian Barry, the 1960 Olympic marathon bronze medallist, based up in Auckland and Sam down on the South Island the pair regular communicate via text and email with the former making every effort to fly up to Auckland as often as he can.
Adopting the high mileage Lydiard model of training – he averages 200km a week – Magee gradually transformed Sam from a 10,000m track and half-marathon runner into a fully-fledged marathon runner.
In 2008 he made his debut over the 42.2km in Dunedin with Barry advising Sam before the race to treat it as a “training run” even though the marathon rookie might have taken the comments a little too literally.
“I maybe took his advice a little the wrong way in that I ran the race too easily,” he explains. “In the last couple of kilometres I caught the leader Rowan Hooper, who was chasing a race record, but I didn’t want to pass him because I thought Barry would be mad at me for running too hard.”
Crossing the line in second in 2:27:26 that day nonetheless filled the appliance technician with a lot of confidence the marathon was his primary event.
In 2009 he claimed his first marathon victory – fittingly in the Lydiard Legends Marathon in 2:23:11 - and in 2010 he ran a PB of 2:19:17 to win the Dunedin Marathon and also clocked 2:19:56 for second in the Auckland Marathon, winning a New Zealand marathon silver medal in the process.
Enduring a “rough time” with injuries through much of 2011 in November of that year he decided to step up his training with a prolonged period in Iten, Kenya.
The six-month long experience – in which he build up a close friendship with Felix Kandie, a former winner of the Prague and Athens Marathons and lived in the house of Sylvia Kibet, the 2008 Olympic 5000m bronze medallist – is one he will never forget.
“It was amazing,” he says of his time spend living and training in the world’s distance-running hotbed. “The calibre of athlete there was really quite humbling. Very few people know how many good runners are there who never make it out of Kenya. There is so much talent – it is unbelievable.”
In great shape following his Kenyan experience, within two months of his return home Sam banked his first senior national title with gold in the New Zealand Cross Country Championships - a moment he describes as “huge.”
Later that year he set slick marathon times of 2:16:35 and 2:17:30 to win the Southland and Christchurch Marathons, respectively, the former in a new personal best time.
Fuelled by the confidence of his success in 2013 Sam claimed victory in New Zealand’s two most prestigious marathons – Auckland and Rotorua - before the following year chipping seven seconds from his lifetime best to win the Christchurch Marathon in 2:16:28.
Yet the brakes were to put on Sam’s flourishing domestic marathon career in 2015 and 2016 as a persistent lower calf problem took its toll. He worked closely with specialists in order to make his body more robust but admits the extended time away from the competitive arena was hugely challenging.
“It was horrible to be away from running,” he says. “I took a period off which was intentional. Seeing everyone else racing while I was out was pretty tough.”
Thankfully the problems eased and in 2017 he went on to win the Hastings (2:27:08) and Queenstown Marathon (2:27:56) – the latter executed as a training run – in preparation for the following month’s Singapore Marathon.
Competing in brutal heat and humidity in the island-city state, the heat-loving Sam was in the main group until the final 10km before winding up 13th - albeit the first non-Kenyan finisher - in 2:34.12
“I was a little disappointed but I learned a lot and I think I’d do things differently if I ran it again,” he explains. “Experience was certainly key.”
In the form of his life in February he posted a personal best of 2:16:03 for the Buller Gorge Marathon running “pretty easily” before turning his attention to the London Marathon, where he was optimistic of a big breakthrough.
“I was in really good shape and I was tracking to run a lot faster than 2:16,” he explains. “In training I was running in a fashion I could only previously have dreamed.”
However, shortly after his victory in the Buller Gorge Marathon, he picked up a tendon injury – he believes through driving with his foot at a slightly awkward angle.
Unfortunately, the injury sidelined him for two months and he was forced to abandon plans to run London – where he had targeted a 2:13 time.
Sam has since returned to training twice a day where he often runs an easy 30-40mins on the morning before working 8am-3pm – and then completing a demanding session on an afternoon - which in any given week combines three long runs, two tempo runs and one fartlek session.
Blessed to be based in Timaru, which he says thanks to the rolling hills of the area offers the ideal training environment, Sam bounced back last month to secure the New Zealand half-marathon crown in 67:10 – the second national title of his career.
“I was very happy,” he explains. “I guess I was just getting back on the horse again after the foot injury and a virus in August.”
Boasting what he believes is a good natural “speed endurance”, Sam would one day love to compete in the Boston Marathon but has one simple future aspiration.
“I want to get rid of 2:16 as my (marathon) PB,” he adds. “I would love to race on a fast course to see what I could do. Many of my New Zealand marathons I’ve ran on my own, I’d love to be in a bunch and pulled along (to a fast time). I’d love to throw the kitchen sink at it, to see just how fast I can go.”