Wellington Scottish rattled off a fourth successive senior men’s victory at the New Zealand Road Relay championships in Akaroa earlier this month. With the willing assistance of former team captain and road relay devotee Todd Stevens and Scottish’s current men’s club captain Rowan Hooper we find out their ten-point guide for road relay glory.
A tireless chief organiser is a key foundation stone behind any successful team, according to six-time national road relay champion Rowan Hooper
“Runners are by their nature very individual, so somebody needs to be able to herd the cats,” explains Hooper, whose first four national road relay titles with the University of Canterbury club were inspired by the tireless work of Craig Motley.
“It is important the organiser sorts out accommodation for 130 people, ensures that the 20 or so trips to the airport are made and that the entries are sorted. All of this helps create the structure a winning team needs and also allows the athlete to focus on the task in hand.”
Hooper, who has snared his last two national road relays for Wellington Scottish, says Stephen Day, the 2017 NZ marathon champion, has taken on this pivotal role at his current club, ably assisted by Marshall Clark.
Engage the Whole Club
Todd Stevens believes the success of the senior men is not in isolation. At the 2018 NZ Road Relay Championships, for example, Scottish won the top club award after earning top honours in the senior men’s, masters men, and masters men over 50 divisions, silver in the junior men’s race and bronze in the senior women’s competition.
“It has to be about the whole club and not just the senior men,” he explains. “You have to make the road relays an event where all members want to attend whether to win a title or just simply to have a fantastic weekend away as a social runner. We had 130 people down in Akaroa in 16 teams. For me, this is the value of being a club member, and it is not something that can easily be replicated by simply entering a half marathon.”
Boast a Star Athlete and Build Depth
Named Wellington Scottish team captain at the age of just 21 in 1991, Todd played a key role in helping create a dynasty of sustained relay success at Wellington Scottish during his 16 years at the helm. A self-confessed road relay tragic, Todd helped slowly improve the standard of the Scottish effort at national road relay culminating with their maiden success in 1999 and further victories in 2001, 03 and 04.
Stevens recognised the importance of having top-notch athletes in the team and following the arrival of John Henwood at the club in the mid-nineties, Scottish now had an athlete with the quality to make a serious impact.
“I knew John could eke out a small advantage for us on the long leg, so I thought, heck, we could build a team around him.”
Henwood, a 27:45 10,000m runner, formed the “backbone” of the team for many years, helping Scottish register a record victory winning margin of 9:42 at the 2001 edition at Akaroa.
In 2004 Henwood once again proved his commitment to the national relay by inspiring Scottish to another gold medal-winning performance shortly after appearing in the 10,000m at the Athens Olympics.
Yet above beyond having a star athlete, creating depth in the squad and across the whole club is paramount.
“Build depth, so the eighth best runner is fitter and faster than the opposition’s eighth best and also ensure that depth goes beyond the eighth best (runner) in the event of a late withdrawal is key,” adds Todd. “If all these factors (including having the fastest athlete) come into play basic mathematics says you have a chance of medalling or even winning.”
Success Breeds Success
Scottish’s maiden senior men’s road relay title ushered in a glorious period of four wins in six years for the Wellington-based club – and there is little doubt that initial victory proved the catalyst.
“That day sowed the seeds for future success,” explains Todd. “After that first win we were hungry for more. That set the tone. Every year we made sure the athletes committed and made the road relays a priority. For the next six years that core group of athletes carried us to more success.”
In more recent years, Scottish have reinvented themselves once again as the dominant senior men’s road relay force winning in 2012, 15, 16, 17 and 18.
Train in a Group
Regularly training together can engender a team spirit and a bond which can be critical come relay day, according to Hooper.
The Wellington Scottish club captain encourages squad members to try and meet for training every Saturday and Sunday and as often as possible on lunchtimes and after work during the week.
“We make a conscious effort to try and get the guys out as often as possible at the same time and location,” he explains. “To train with a squad tends to lift everybody’s game. If you are going through a bad patch on a run this acts as extra motivation to make sure you keep up and run with the pack. Training together can raise standards and it is also nice to have company when the weather is rubbish.”
Another key ingredient for success is simply to get along well, insists Hooper, who has featured in not only successful road relay teams at University of Canterbury AC and Wellington Scottish but also the Varsity winning Cambridge University cross country team in England.
“Every successful team I’ve been involved with has had one thing in common; we’ve all got along pretty well,” he adds. “We’ve spent a lot of time of just hanging out together. This has the advantage of helping all team members focus and buy into a particular task (such as performing well at road relays).”
Enjoy Some Good Fortune
Any winning road relay team needs a bit of luck and Todd is gracious enough to accept Scottish have received their fair share in past victories.
During their maiden success in 1999, Scottish trailed North Harbour Bays, who were seeking a sixth successive win, on the penultimate lap only for the Auckland-based club to surprisingly concede a clear advantage when the race of Kerry Rodger, the 1990 Commonwealth Games athlete, dramatically unravelled.
“Whether it was heatstroke or exhaustion Kerry Rodger started to get the wobbles and was in a world of trouble,” explains Todd. “Our athlete Blair Martin went past Kerry with 500m to go and opened up a one minute lead into the final leg. John Henwood set off and even with two-time Olympian Robbie Johnston in pursuit, John held him off and we won by 30 seconds. It was incredible.”
Adopt the Correct Strategy
With the various terrain and distance of the National Road Relay Championships, particularly when run on the iconic Takahe to Akaroa route, strategy plays a pivotal role.
“Akaroa can reward the good uphill runner, the good downhill runner, the good longer distance,” explains Todd who says picking the right athlete for the right leg is an important component.
Practice Time Trialing
Due to the unique nature of the race which can last for more than four hours, athletes will often have to spend sustained periods racing on their own. For many more accustomed to pack racing this is a different skill, so Scottish have long introduced handicap racing in an effort to practice the art of time trialing.
“Handicap racing can help replicate what you might get in a relay scenario,” explains Todd. “Time trialling may be on the margins (of what is required to create a winning team) but when you are winning races by a minute or less these things can make a difference.”
Winning a national road relay title is far from a straight-forward task.
Any team faces multiple obstacles on the journey to the top of the dais and challenges need to be overcome as demonstrated by Todd’s personal experience ahead of this year’s event.
Planning to take the 7pm flight out of Wellington to Christchurch the night before the championship, Todd was horrified to discover the flight had been cancelled with the next available flight at 1pm the next day – long after the start time of the race!
“I said to Kristian Day, who I was travelling with, there is only one thing for it, we’ll take the flight to Dunedin that night,” he explains. “We landed at 11pm and I then drove a hire car 450km to Christchurch. We arrived at the team motel at 4am, had two hours sleep before we made our way to the relay start (where Todd was competing in the men’s masters event). This shows that a road relay can throw up many curve balls. It is far more complicated than simply turning up with the top eight runners and expecting it to happen.”