The first run that I can remember I went on led to a severe reprimand from my parents. My mother angrily told me that I had been thoughtless and stupid. She was probably right, but – in my defence – I was only eleven years old. I knew that there was a polio scare in Johannesburg that summer, but my friend, Brian Hirsch, and I didn't know that running from our homes in Parktown North to the upper Rosebank shopping centre and back (a distance, I now estimate, of roughly 4 miles / 6 kilometres) was precisely the type of physical exertion assumed to be associated with catching polio. Not being allowed to run wasn't too upsetting: Brian and I found alternative activities that were far more indolent to fill our days that long hot summer (such as collecting Supermen of Science bottle-tops, as a result of which, incidentally, I first learnt about Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming, and Marie Curie – and, yes, in South Africa in 1955 Madame Curie really was called a Superman of Science).
When I was a teenager, I went to a Methodist boys' boarding school, where – sadly – running was not high on the school's list of sporting priorities. Rugby and cricket were king; running was regarded as an alternative to taking a cold shower (to ward off thoughts of either the opposite sex or, worse still, the same sex). Although the school held a few infrequent cross-country races, both boys and masters treated them as a something of a joke, and when I ran round the perimeter of the school's 240-acre grounds on more than twenty occasions during the spring of 1959 as training for climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, my fellow schoolboys viewed me as distinctly odd.
In retrospect, it's a pity that running was not taken more seriously when I was at school, because I think it's true to say that I eventually became a reasonably good long-distance runner. I hasten to add that I was never brilliant at running, and probably never destined to be, but my marathon times were quite a lot faster than one would have predicted from my 10 kilometre times, and I've frequently wondered what I could have achieved had my potential as a long-distance runner been spotted early and then nurtured.
The Christchurch City to Surf run
Even though the United States high school I attended in 1962-63 had a cross-country team, I didn't try out for it and, instead, had my first and only foray into acting (playing a fourth-rate villain in a third-rate melodrama entitled The Curse of An Aching Heart). Running remained a non-event in my life until 1976 when – on the spur of the moment – I decided to join Stuart Payne and run the 12 kilometre City to Surf race in Christchurch. Despite the fact that I had done no training whatsoever, I joined more than four thousand other hopeful runners on the start line on Saturday morning, 20 March 1976, and then proceeded to run non-stop to the Queen Elizabeth Park stadium in 70 minutes and 50 seconds. It's somewhat ironic that the certificate I was given to commemorate the fact that I had "successfully completed the Christchurch Star City to Surf Jog" was signed by, among others, the Chairman of the Come Alive Campaign, because that evening I felt far from alive: as a result of my complete lack of training for the run, I was so stiff and sore that Heather had to lever me onto our bed in order for me to get into it.
My first running certificate – for completing
the 1976 Christchurch City to Surf race.
I learnt an important lesson, though. It really is necessary to train for a 12 kilometre race, and when I ran the City to Surf again in 1977, I was considerably better prepared and nearly nine minutes faster than in 1976. The following year I knocked a further three minutes off my time and broke the sixty-minute barrier for the first time. In 1979 I again reduced my City to Surf time by three minutes, and by 1980 (which was the last year I ran the race) my time was down to 55.07. Later that autumn, I ran another fun run, as well as the Sedley Wells half-marathon (which – given that the race covered a distance of "approx. 24 km" – was, in fact, about three kilometres longer than a half-marathon). However, after running three races in less than three months in the first half of 1980, I became a de facto solo father of a five-year-old when Heather accepted a job in Wellington and began commuting between Christchurch and Wellington, and my running plans weren't even put onto the back burner: they were taken off the stove altogether.
Moving up to Wellington ... and up to the marathon
In early 1981, however, we all moved permanently to Wellington, and it's ironic that the hilly, windy capital city of New Zealand was where my running really took off. In early February that year I began running regularly. At first, I only ran for about 20 minutes or so a day, but by the beginning of March was fit enough to complete an 8.5 kilometre fun run at an average speed of 4.2 kilometres per hour – considerably faster than the rate I'd run in my best City to Surf race in Christchurch. Then on my 37th birthday I decided I wanted to run that year's Christchurch marathon. It was a tall order – the marathon was to be held exactly seven weeks after I decided I'd start training for it. Nevertheless, despite the facts (i) that my longest training runs were only 27.9 kilometres long and (ii) that I had to have a small emergency operation including an overnight stay in Wellington's public hospital less than two weeks before the marathon, I lined up on the Christchurch marathon start line on Sunday morning, 31 May 1981.
I was obviously under-prepared for the race, but I ran the whole distance. The second half – and particularly the final quarter – were hard work. About 3 kilometres from the end – with the Queen Elizabeth II stadium in sight – I was in pain and struggling when the runner in front of me collapsed onto the grass verge beside the road. I made a hard-hearted decision not to stop. I knew I could do nothing to help him and that some of the spectators who lined the route would be of far more assistance. Even more important, though, I knew that if I had stopped to help him, I wouldn't have been able to start again. I left him lying on the ground and willed my legs forward over and over again another three thousand or so times until I finally entered the stadium and ran round the track to the finish line. I crossed it 3 hours, 50 minutes, and 20 seconds after the start of the race. It was a cold, early winter's day and – as a picture of me near the end of the marathon clearly shows – I was exhausted. I was also elated. My running "career" was born …
I am clearly feeling the pain with one lap
Queen Elizabeth II stadium athletic track
until the end of my first marathon.
The following year, 1982, I ran my first half-marathon (in 1.35.00), and my second marathon (in Blenheim on a fast, flat course past the vineyards of Marlborough). My time improved dramatically. It was 3.08.09 – more than a minute per kilometre faster than my first marathon.
In 1983 I began to make my mark as a long distance runner: I reduced my half-marathon time to well under an hour-and-a-half (running the Upper Hutt half in 1.24.21 in February), and I twice broke three hours in the marathon. In January 1984, I ran the Hobart half-marathon only two days after I heard it was being held, and encouraged by a superb support-crew of two (my father and Evan, my son), I did what proved to be my best-ever time over the 21.1 kilometre / 13.1 mile half-marathon distance: 1.22.32. Four months later, on 5 May, I ran my first marathon as a veteran or masters athlete and kept up an enviable record: every marathon I'd run had been faster than the previous one. My time for the 42.2 kilometre / 26.2 mile marathon was now down to 2.53.53.
Training for climbing
I was overseas on sabbatical leave for a large part of 1985, so didn't do much long distance racing that year, but I did a lot of running in Denmark in October and November – running on thirty different occasions for an average of more than an hour per run – as training for my second attempt on Mt Kilimanjaro. Compared with the twenty-odd short runs that constituted my training "regime" in 1959, my preparations for climbing Kilimanjaro 26 years later were far faster and longer, and I was far, far fitter. This time I was successful: on 12 December 1985, I reached the summit of the mountain – it was something I had been wanting to achieve literally since I was a teenager. As a result, ever since 1985 running has also been the basis of my training for major climbs. It leads to two things: fitness and, of equal if not even more importance, determination. Long distance running prepares you to cope with the pain of putting one leg in front of the other for hours on end, and to continue to do so even when your body and your mind both want you to quit. After I climbed Mt Kilimanjaro in December 1985, I compared the final two-hour slog from Gillman's Point (at 5,681 metres / 18,640 feet) to the true summit, Uhuru Peak (which is 5,895 metres / 19,340 feet above sea-level), with the physical and mental slog I'd had to face completing any marathon I'd ever run, but especially finishing the final few kilometres of my first (and, by far and away, my slowest) marathon, which I'd run four-and-a-half years previously.
While we were overseas on my sabbatical leave, Evan – who was then 10 – expressed an interest in joining a running club. After we returned to Wellington in 1986, Evan again indicated that that was what he wanted to do. Until then, I had never really considered joining a running club. After all, I reasoned, long-distance running is, of necessity, a solo affair. It is something you do by yourself, and it's not something that requires the company of other people in order to participate in it. It's almost the very opposite of a team sport; it's an activity that is encapsulated by the title of Alan Sillitoe's well-known 1950s short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.
However, as a result of Evan's interest, I asked various friends about possible clubs he and I could join. Obviously, a prime qualification for any club that we would join was that it had to have a well-functioning (well run!) children's section. Several people mentioned Scottish Harriers as a possibility, and when I looked into the matter further, I found out that Bernie Portenski was an active member of the club. I had raced against Bernie, beating her in the 1983 Masterton marathon, in the 1984 Upper Hutt half-marathon, in the 1984 Rotorua marathon, in the 1984 Masterton half-marathon, and – by one place and nine seconds – in a 10 kilometre road race in the Hutt Valley in January 1985. I'm in Bernie's league, I concluded – or more accurately, she's almost in mine, I concluded – and on Saturday, 10 May 1986, both Evan and I joined Scottish Harriers and I ran my first club race, the gut-busting 5 kilometre Le Gaye Cup race (which includes a steep climb up a horrid hill) in Island Bay.
I have been a member of Scottish Harriers (since renamed the Wellington Scottish Athletics Club, Inc., but I still prefer and generally use its old name) for well over 30 years now, while Evan has been a member whenever he has lived in Wellington and has consistently followed the club's affairs while living in Minnesota. Joining Scottish Harriers also proved that I couldn't have been more wrong about two things.
In the first place, I have really enjoyed the camaraderie and fellowship that stem from running with a club. I have been introduced to trails and areas for running that I never knew existed and would never have found by myself. (Indeed, an innate conservatism means I am rather unadventurous when it comes to exploring unknown byways and finding new running routes.) More importantly, though, I have met some exceptionally nice people both in and through Scottish Harriers, and I have had some wonderfully competitive tussles with people I would certainly not have had the pleasure – and also, of course, the pain – of racing against.
Rivalry with Rob Laking
In this respect, I regard my rivalry with Rob Laking as one of the highlights of my membership of Scottish. In the late-1980s and early-1990s, Rob and I frequently battled against each other. Sometimes he beat me; other times I beat him. It was a friendly, good-natured competitiveness, but it was a rivalry we both took very seriously. Other members of the club noticed our rivalry too. We may not have been members of the A-team for inter-club relays (though we were occasionally members of the veterans' A-team), but the races that Rob and I had were undoubtedly A-league rivalry. It was the stuff of legends. On one occasion – the Mangaroa half-marathon in April 1988 – Rob and I ran together, in harmony and step-for-step, for almost twenty kilometres. I had run the course before, but Rob hadn't. Approaching the crest of a hill on the half-marathon route, I knew it was followed by a steep drop down to the finish line, but Rob didn't. About 50 metres before the top of the hill, I left Rob without warning and raced for the summit, then ran pell-mell, as fast as I could, down hill for the final kilometre of the race. I didn't look back till I'd crossed the finish line in Wallaceville: it's just as well I didn't look back, because I would have seen Rob. He was right behind me in the finish chute and, according to the race results, he finished the half-marathon in an identical time (1.25.43). If I hadn't pulled what was literally a swiftie, I very much suspect Rob would have beaten me that day. As it was, though, I came 9th in the Veteran Men's category, and Rob came 10th.
Rob Laking (in an August 1988 relay).
Another year, I wasn't as fit as I should or could have been, and no matter what tactics I tried, Rob always beat me. One race – an annual inter-club cross-country race at the Tauherenikau race track – I tried leading from the front. It didn't work: Rob stormed past me about 800 metres from the end. The next inter-club race – a road race on the outskirts of Masterton – I did the opposite and hung in closely behind Rob. About three-quarters the way through the race, a young club member standing by the roadside saw Rob and shouted encouragingly to him. Then she saw me. I desperately tried to mime to her not to call out my name, but to no avail. Charlotte yelled, "Come on, Nigel!" As I feared would be the case, Rob heard her too and took off like a startled deer, leaving me with black thoughts about throttling Charlotte and even blacker thoughts about the importance of training.
The second thing I was very wrong about was Bernie Portenski. I am nowhere near her league. She not only became a far better runner than I ever was, but she stayed a far faster runner for far longer than me (and I mean "longer" both in terms of distance and of time). Bernie really was one of the greats of the New Zealand running scene. For my part, I am simply happy (nay, delighted) to have been a member of the same club as Bernie – and to reflect, ruefully perhaps, that there was once a time when I regularly ran faster than she did.
PB plus Top Club status
In 1988 – after a gap of more than four years – I ran my sixth marathon and first in Scottish Harriers' colours. It was the Hastings marathon, and on a fast, flat course in perfect conditions (starting, for instance, on a cold, frosty morning), I ran a cracker of a first half. On an out-and-back course, I reached the turn-around point in 1.24.48. I was feeling good and knew that if I ran back in the same time, I'd break 2:50:00 – the next running "milestone" I dreamed of reaching. For the next 12 kilometres I ran well, at one stage falling in beside a runner and being dragged along almost hypnotically by him as our feet hit the asphalt in unison for kilometre after kilometre. Sadly, I was being pulled along at a pace in excess of my capacity, and when we reached a drinks' station about 8 kilometres from the end of the race, I peeled off for a quick drink of water and sponge-down. The man I was running with carried on, and I never recovered the rhythm and momentum I'd achieved by running alongside him. When I crossed the finish line in a personal best time (i.e., a PB) of 2.53.04, I had the enviable record of running six marathons and always improving on the time in which I'd run my previous marathon. I'd also run four of my six marathons in sub-three hour times, which was an achievement to be proud of. Sadly, though, I ran the second half of the Hastings marathon in 1.28.16. Although that meant that I’d run the second half of the marathon at sub-three hour pace (a not inconsiderable achievement), it also meant that I'd run the second half of the marathon 3 minutes and 28 seconds slower than my first half – which was, of course, a difference that was greater than the amount of time by which I'd exceeded 2 hours and 50 minutes.
The 1988 Hastings marathon: a strong start and an exhausted ending.
Overall, however, it wasn't really an occasion for feeling sad. I was part of the five-member Scottish Harriers' team that won the Top Club trophy. The other members of the official Scottish team in the race were Howard Harman, Peter Pohl, Stella Wylie, and Bernie Portenski – who put my achievements into perspective by being our team's fastest runner. As the Dominion Sunday Times' story about the race put it, Bernie "blitzed the women's record" in a time of 2.42.01. As I said earlier, I really wasn't in Bernie's league, but that didn't stop me joining her and the other three runners in our team and celebrating our victory with a bottle of Charles Heidsieck French champagne.
The 1988 Hastings marathon Top Club team.
From left to right, Bernie Portenski, Stella Wylie,
Howard Harman, Nigel Roberts, and Peter Pohl.
A track season and a torn meniscus
I will always remember the summer of 1988-89. After a good year's running, I had my first – and, as it turned out, only – track season. I enjoyed the bounce of the track, the shorter distances (usually 1,500-, 3,000-, or occasionally 5,000-metres), and the lazing around in the sun before and after races watching the competitors in other events. My speed improved quite markedly. My best 3,000-metre time was 10.20, and my best 5,000-metre time was 18.15. I even entertained hopes of running a sub 5-minute mile, but – sadly – there were very few mile races that summer and never one I was able to run. My 10-kilometre road race time dropped dramatically too: in early February 1989 I covered the distance in 37.46, knocking almost a minute off my standard time. Life – or at least my running – knew no bounds, or so I thought …
In early July – after a good first half-year's running (and after winning a bicycle as a spot-prize during the Wellington mid-winter half-marathon's prize-giving ceremony) – my right knee suddenly became very painful. I had to use the banister to haul myself upstairs. Visits to a sports medicine doctor and multiple physiotherapy sessions didn't really help, and so eventually – on 17 November – I had a general anaesthetic and arthroscopy operation to trim the meniscus in my right knee.
The English (and New Zealand)
I didn't recover quickly from the operation. A month went by before I was able to sleep through the night without waking in pain, and it was more than nine months before I took part in another Scottish Harriers' race. The All Black great, Michael Jones, returned to first class rugby the same day (namely, Saturday, 8 September 1990) "after a remarkable rebuilding job [on his knee] by Auckland surgeon Barry Tietjens", to quote the Evening Post, which made me reflect on the trials and tribulations that we (?) sportsmen suffer!
Striving for some of the seven summits
Almost inevitably (except if I’d been Michael Jones, I suppose), my running speed went down and my times went up after my knee operation. I never again achieved the speeds I’d attained in the 1980s. I retired from marathon running, and it wasn't till mid-1994 that I even ran another half-marathon.
During the 1990s, one of my main reasons for running was to get fit for going on climbing expeditions. For example, I did a lot of running in New Zealand in the first half of 1994 in order to prepare for climbing Mt Elbrus in Russia, and – aided by that year's superb autumn weather in northern Europe – I did even more running in Scandinavia during the last quarter of the year prior to climbing Aconcagua in Argentina. When I ran round a lake-side circuit in Mendoza in mid-December 1994 before setting out to climb Aconcagua, I achieved a major goal. While I knew then and still know now that I will never climb all the seven summits, I have at least run on all seven continents (and will, in due course, be putting up an article about that on this website).
Running round the "circuito lago"
in Mendoza, Argentina, in Dec-
ember 1994, meant that I'd run
on all seven continents.
Although Aconcagua is the highest mountain I have ever climbed, my longest and hardest climb was Mt McKinley / Denali in mid-1997, and I know that I wouldn't have succeeded had it not been for the extensive running (including lots of hill-work) that I did beforehand.
Coming out of retirement
Appropriately, therefore, I was on the top of a small mountain in England, when I made a decision that led to my coming out of retirement – retirement, that is, as a marathon runner. If athletes and sports stars as well-known as Lance Armstrong, George Foreman, Martina Hingis, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tana Umaga, and Zinedine Zidane can retire from retirement, then surely so too could I.
Annette Morris, one of the people with whom I had climbed Aconcagua in 1994, and I were sitting on the summit of Grisedale Pike in the Lake District on a lovely Saturday morning in late October 1998, when she said that she was planning to come to New Zealand in early 2000 and suggested that we both do the Coast-to-Coast, the renowned multi-sport race – by foot, bike, and kayak – from the west coast of the South Island, across the main divide, to the Pacific coast. We agreed we would do the race not as a two-person team, but as individuals – and so, a few days later, I decided to run one more marathon.
At the top of Grisedale Pike, Annette Morris and
I agreed to enter the 2000 Coast-to-Coast race,
led me to emulate Lance Armstrong and
– for one final marathon!
Achieving marathon fitness, I reasoned, would be a good start to my training for the Coast-to-Coast. It was, and it wasn't. During the first half of 1999, I got really fit – so much so that after an eleven year break from marathon running, I completed the Christchurch marathon in early-June 1999 in a highly respectable time of 3.12.06, and, by doing so, came second in the M50-59 category. However, I also injured myself and lost more fitness than I'd have liked. Nevertheless, I did do the February 2000 Coast-to-Coast (an account I have written about it will be put onto this website in the not-too-distant future) and, overall, running my seventh marathon wasn't really a bad idea. Afterwards, though, I really did retire from marathon running. Although I could no longer claim that each of my marathons had been faster than my previous one, I could at least claim – and still can – that more than half the marathons I've attempted have been run in less than three hours apiece. Were I to run an eighth, that would no longer be true, so – aged 55 – it really was time for me to stop running marathons.
Incidentally, it's worth noting that my last marathon was Evan's first. He ran the 1999 Christchurch marathon in 2.53.20 – just sixteen seconds slower than my fastest-ever marathon, and as I said to him after the race, they were the most diplomatic sixteen seconds of his life! Six years later, though, Evan shattered my marathon record when he did the Philadelphia marathon in 2.49.04 – the torch has clearly been passed not just to a new generation, but to a considerably faster runner.
A long way to go
My running during the first decades of the 21st century has been far from glorious. I have been dogged by injuries and illness (including a stress fracture, groin sprain, pulled muscles, influenza, and BPH, not to mention a broken leg that was the result of a climbing accident). But I have persisted, and I credit running with getting me fit enough to climb Mont Blanc in 2004 and just fit enough to just climb Mt Rainier in 2007. In addition, I still enjoy running. The old aphorism, 'There's no gain without pain', may be true, but at the same time it is also true that the pleasure from the gains far exceeds the discomfort and the pains. I hope to keep going for some while yet. What is more, I have now run in all six states and both the mainland territories of Australia, as well as in all fifty of the 50 United States. Pages are being developed and added to this website about various aspects of my running, and I'm delighted to report that my pages about running in America and running in Australia are both now on-line and up-to-date.
All in all, however, I still have long way to go – both with regard to website development and with respect to running ...
Pages in the Running section of my website were last revised on 18 July 2020.