New Zealand distance running star Zane Robertson performed with pride in Rio. Steve Landells caught up with the African-based Kiwi hopes to use his Olympic experiences as a springboard to a bright future in the marathon.
Describing his year as being like “humpty dumpty” in that he “kept falling off the wall” with various illness and injury issues, it was a minor miracle Zane Robertson made it to the start line in Rio.
The fact that once in the cauldron of the Olympic Stadium he was to run such an accomplished race, wiping more than eight seconds from Dick Quax’s New Zealand record, to place a highly commendable 12th in the final is testament to his quality.
Should he enjoy a clean bill of health for a sustained period of time watch out world as he begins the countdown to what will be his marathon debut next year. The Kiwi distance running community should be excited.
Rewind back to early July and his Olympic aspirations hung for a thread.
Struggling with what he assumed was a calf tear picked up at the Great Manchester Run 10km – where he ran 28:54 - he considered giving up on his dreams for Rio.
Yet working with a leading UK-based sports science team he flew into Brighton on England’s South Coast, where he received a welcome solution.
“I thought I’d torn my calf, but they found it was actually a neurological problem with my back,” explains Zane in Rio. “I was out of line, but once they put that in order and I was told to do some exercises and stretching to get the muscles in check.”
He had been given a reprieve. Two days later he restarted running and after a training stint in St Moritz in Switzerland alongside Dutch marathoner Abdi Nageeye (a 2:10 marathon runner at his best) he slowly returned to form.
His first track session back was a little down on when he wanted to be, but a second track session over a total distance of 16km proved far more encouraging.
“I finished the workout with a 56-second 400m and that was the moment I thought, I can do something in Rio,” he explains.
Zane has undergone a rollercoaster of emotions since winning Commonwealth Games bronze in 2014. Last year he made a huge breakthrough on the road, running a stunning New Zealand record time of 59:47 in Marugame in Japan – a performance which elevated him to the third quickest in history for a non-African born runner.
Injury further curtailed his ambitions to compete at the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing before he returned to training and earlier this year in February, Zane says he was “probably the best shape of my life” about five weeks out from the New York Half-Marathon.
Yet an untimely lingering sinus infection further disrupted his training.
Badly compromised the Ethiopian-based Kiwi ran 62:37 to place eighth in New York before calf issues started to emerge. In May he ran in Manchester but was forced to take more time out of training, but it was Zane’s good fortune that he and his identical twin brother, Jake, had started working with the Sub-2 project run by leading British sports and exercise scientist and anti-doping expert Yannis Pitsiladis.
As the name suggests the goal is to support a first ever two-hour marathon, a target that the team believe can be achieved in the next five years through the best in sports science innovation.
Pitsaladis, intrigued by using identical twins as part of the project, invited him to England’s South Coast and the medical team fixed the problem. He was now on track for Rio, where he set himself a very clear goal.
“The goal here was to come and break the national record (set by Dick Quax in 1977 of 27:41.95),” explains Zane. “Unless it was a really slow race, I knew to win a medal would be long shot, although after the first few laps I really thought the national record was not happening. We started the race slower than the women’s race, but fortunately the pace picked up and I was able to finish my last 5km in 13:20.”
Zane had produced an accomplished display to stop the clock in 27:33.67 behind Great Britain’s Mo Farah. As a further measure of the quality of the performance, the 26-year-old was the second non-African born finisher in the final.
Now with his Olympic experience behind him, Zane will look to the marathon in future. His next big target is the New Delhi Half-Marathon in November before he intends to make his debut over the full marathon distance at an unspecified race next year.
Working closely with the Sub-2 team on trying to gain that legal extra edge on the opposition and he is excited by working with the innovative project.
“For us he (Pitsaladis) takes care of the science side and we can focus on the running,” says Zane. “He is very against drugs and he will look into every area of training from the lightness of the footwear to the best sports drink. We have access to the best lab in the world.”
With the very best in sports science assistance post-Rio, Zane plans to return to Ethiopia to continue to work with his coach Gemedu Dedefo and his training group, which includes Boston Marathon winner Lemi Berhanu.
Training between 130-170km a week “although I’ve never focused on mileage” at an altitude of more than 2300m, Zane believes still offers the perfect training environment and he has promised “something special” in his next half-marathon outing in New Delhi.
Yet the 26-year-old insists his long-term his future lies in the marathon and he looking forward to making his debut next year, where he is confident he can make a genuine impact
“I’ve trained like a marathon runner for a couple of years, “he explains. “The Africans push really hard on the roads and in the gym. Everything I do is real endurance, I’ve had to be tough mentally, but I’ve survived. I think when you are racing over 42km it helps to be mentally strong.
In one capacity or another he hopes to be competing at next year’s IAAF World Championships in London in either the 10,000m or marathon and he can’t wait for the challenges in the next phase of his career.
“I don’t want to set a limit on myself,” he adds. “Anything is possible.”