Updated: Feb 24
Bathurst was a dream / obsession that started sometime in 2019 way before COVID. Hearing that the World Cross Country Champs were coming to Aus, it wasn’t too hard to talk Simon Mace into the trip and so with Simon being the organised kind of guy he is, we had accommodation and a car booked for 2021 which was then postponed to 2022 and then again to 2023! Anyway, by the time Feb 17th came round, Wim Luijpers from Owai, and our friends (and sometimes rivals) Greg Darbyshire and Mike Wanden from Takapuna were up for the adventure and we were entered into the World Masters Cross Country Champs scheduled for the day after the big races.
Here’s a little run down of possibly one of the best running weekends ever.
Arrived just after lunch in Bathurst. 34 degrees in the shade (stinking hot!) Took a trip up to the course at Mt Panorama and jogged a couple of laps. Ran with Mat Baxter (NZ co-captain) for a bit and bumped into Eric Speakman who took our photo for us. Heated discussions about tactics, shoe choices, the heat, the best line through the billabong section (mud) and the vineyard. General feelings about the course were that it was niggly with nowhere you could really stretch out and get into the rhythm. Some decent climbs and even an uphill chicane section to end the lap. Basically a good, honest cross country course.
Early wake up for Simon and me. We jogged 500m from our motel to the start of the Bathurst parkrun. Posed in front of a sign that said “Watch out for snakes” and saw this huge pack running round the course. We decided they must be warming up for the parkrun so jumped in and found ourselves running with Jess Stenson (2022 Commonwealth Games Gold Medallist – Marathon). Maybe because we were so starstruck, it took a while before we realised that this bunch were on a long run and heading out of town at pace... Anyway, we made it back to the parkrun where there were more than 500 runners gathered. The parkrun was fine. Nice course. Friendly people as always and we bumped into the Wesley boys at the end.
In the afternoon, we headed up the mountain to spectate. The racing started with the mixed relay and there was a strong showing from the New Zealand team led off by Sam Tanner. Then it was into the main races – first up Bella Earl and the U20 women. It was just incredible watching those African women monster that course. They glided up the hills, floated over the mud and it all looked just effortless. Of course it wasn’t – they’d have been hurting as much as anyone on that course and in that heat ... but there is nothing that can beat the sight of a pack of Ethiopians, Kenyans and Ugandans running crossie. Our women did fantastically well. Bella went off hard as she tends to but ran strong and picked up places throughout. Just awesome to watch her progress. Others went out too hard and there was a degree of carnage with a Canadian and Aussie runner both collapsing just after the mud in front of us. Not good to see.
"Mt Panorama, was no easy feat! With temperatures up to 36°C 🥵 many competitors struggled with the heat! On your marks... BANG!! the gun went off, at that point all nerves disappeared and I like all the other competitors was in race mode. It was a strange start. It was like two races in one! And you had to even race to the start line! It was so cool seeing all the athletes from other countries competing against you. Luckily due to the hot weather they had two water stations on the two kilometer loop, I had to do three of these loops, it was so hot I found myself having to grab two water bottles at every station and tipping them over my head, to stay cool. As the race went on I found myself passing competitors that had underestimated the heat and gone out too fast! Once I was up the last and final hill of the EXTREMELY hard World Cross Country I could see the finish line, it was soo cool, the sides of the finish line were filled with spectators eagerly watching the races, as I sprinted as fast as I could down the home straight." Bella Earl, NZ U20 Rep.
It was a similar story for the U20 men – the race dominated by the Africans but with some brave performances from the Kiwi boys... and a bit more carnage and sadly more collapses in the heat.
The senior women were next and you’ll have seen the dramatic way that race ended. Unbelievable stuff. Simon and I were in the finish chute. We saw Gidey running downhill having broken away and looking a million dollars. Then coming up through the chicane, she was obviously slowing and Chebet, the Kenyan lead runner seemed to be catching. She still turned the last corner into the finishing descent with a decent lead but she was clearly worried – looking over her shoulder for Chebet and visibly losing coordination. And then at the point where Chebet flew past, it was all over for Gidey. Incredible to see the 10,000m world record holder beaten like that. The next day, we were having drinks with some of the American team, one of whom had access to the Kenyan internal comms (espionage?). Anyway, it was so interesting to read their write up. While Chebet was justifiably praised for the win, the real credit went to 19 year old Grace Nawowuna whose job it was to stretch and break the pack in the third lap and make Gidey work really hard to stay in the fight. Even after sacrificing her own race for the team, she managed to come in 4th overall. Such an insight into the team culture of the Kenyans.
There was more madness in the senior men's race. Before the women’s race finished, there was an announcement that because of the storm coming, the men's race would be brought forward by 20 minutes. Anyway, shortly after the start, there were further announcements that as soon as the race was over everyone needed to get off Mt Panorama. Lap 2 saw some serious wind, a bit of a dust storm, lightning strikes and then suddenly there were gale force winds for the runners to contend with as well as everything else! Advertising hoardings were breaking free, signage was flying through the air and the TV cameraman on top of a scaffolding tower was looking very nervous! We had serious doubts as to whether the race would actually be completed! But it was. We watched the Ugandan Kiplimo take the title looking totally majestic, then a couple more come through and then we ran for the car totally surrounded by lightning. And then the rain started. It was all very dramatic so soon after Cyclone Gabrielle!
At dinner, we met Keith Livingstone and Geoff Shaw in the restaurant. Lots of Owai back-in-the-day talk.
Race day for us masters runners. 280 men and women on the start line. It was seriously congested and there was even a false start but once we were off, the field spread out quite quickly. Awesome running from Simon who got 2nd in the M45 category and was only 3 seconds off gold. And Wim ran a smart race – starting conservatively and surging to silver on the last lap in the M50s. I was happy with my run and felt that I ran well. My pace was consistent throughout and I felt strong at the end. 5th place in the M45s. A little annoyed that I was only 13 seconds off a medal and very annoyed that I was beaten by 60 year old Steve Moneghetti! But that’s alright – you race as well as you can on the day. It was a lot of fun and so good to run over the course that we had watched all the elites run on. It’s a seriously good initiative to combine Masters champs with the real world championships.
Cool down for Simon and me was a jog round the Mt Panorama car racing circuit. It’s really steep!
From left: Greg Darbyshire (Takapuna), Simon Mace Silver medallist M45 (Owairaka), Wim Luijpers Silver medallist M50 (Owairaka), Nick Moore (Owairaka), Mike Wanden (Takapuna).
An early morning sightseeing run to spot kangaroos with our American friends and we even ran into the Kenyan team out for a jog. They didn’t seem too interested in running with a bunch of slow white guys but that’s fine – it made our day. We also saw a lot of kangaroos. Some boxing action. Then home via Katoomba in the Blue Mountains where we bumped into newly crowned world champ M80 division – Roger Robinson and his wife Kathrine Switzer.
This sport is amazing. It can really take you places however old, or fast, or slow you are. And runners are really decent people. Even really good ones have plenty of time for a chat. A weekend with good friends and great racing - we’d better book flights for Croatia next year!