Craig Lautenslager added his name to an impressive cast list of past champions to have won the New Zealand Cross Country title last month. Here the rising Kiwi distance running talent chats to Steve Landells about his rise to prominence and his rich and experienced running family.

With a father as a four-time former competitor at the US Olympic Trials and a mother an ex-New Zealand 5000m champion perhaps it is little surprise that Craig Lautenslager has excelled as an athlete.

Yet the foundation to his success has been much less about the pure genetic advantages that the tall Kiwi possesses and much more about the admirable amount of patience and persistence the Nelson-based athlete has repeatedly revealed during his burgeoning career.

Currently in the form of his life, Craig followed up a highly respectable 13th place finish in the 5000m at the ultra-competitive NCAA Championships to secure his maiden national title when taking out the New Zealand Cross Country Championships with a comprehensive display at the Auckland Domain.

Advertisement

Yet his success has not occurred by accident and the 24-year-old - the eldest of three running siblings, Jeff and Jared are the other two also currently competing and studying in the US - has been rich reward for the value of sheer hard work.

"In some ways (winning that New Zealand title) was more a relief," explains Craig. "I no longer have to wait, but at the end of the day I have a lot higher goals on my wish list such as Olympic Games, World Championships and Commonwealth Games. This was just another step on the journey."

Born in Dallas, Texas son of Greg Lautenslager - a former Texas State mile champion - and Debra (nee Elsmore) - who represented New Zealand at the 1986 Commonwealth Games - Craig has been exposed to running for as long as he can remember.

He performed solidly at primary and intermediate school but it was only after the family relocated to Nelson at the top of the South Island and Craig was aged "12 or 13" did the Garin College student decide to commit to athletics.

"I played some baseball and basketball in the States but when we came to live in New Zealand they didn't play baseball, so I played softball. Back then I was a really tiny guy. In Year Nine I probably only weighed around 39kg and I started to play against some masters softballers, who probably threw the ball at 90kph. It was very discouraging. It then become pretty obvious to me that with my stature and my genes, it would be running or nothing."

However, despite his running genetics he was no champion schoolboy athlete. As a Year Nine student he placed a modest 123rd at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships. Unperturbed he improved steadily each year improving his finishing position 102nd to 56th and then 26th as a Year 13 student. In his final year as a senior boy he targeted a 3000m medal at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Track and Field Championships, but fell short and placed ninth.

"I never got the pinnacle of New Zealand nationals," says Craig whose highlight during his schoolboy career was winning the 3000m at the 2009 South Island Championships. "I never won any medals."

Despite his lack of star appeal as a schoolboy, Craig was fiercely determined to follow in the footsteps of his father and experience the US collegiate system. However, having left school with a relatively modest 3000m best of 9:04 he knew he needed to make significant improvements to catch the attention of the US colleges.

With "no back up plan" to study in New Zealand he took a job and sharpened his running focus for the next 18 months or so. That first summer he lowered his 3000m best to a much more impressive 8:45 then at the 2011 Zatopek meeting in Melbourne he ran a new PB of 8:36. On the back of this performance he received firm interest from two colleges and accepted an offer to attend the University of Texas at Arlington, where he began life as a freshman in August 2012.

Born in the US and with an American father he adapted quickly to college life.

"It was a tremendous experience and I pretty much enjoyed every minute of it," says Craig who graduated with a major in computer science in June. "I found myself on a team which hadn't won a major title for ten years or so but these people on the team became my best friends. It was such a blast. I couldn't have asked for a better experience."

He was also fortunate to come under the coaching of John Sauerhage - a man who coincidentally followed Craig's father, Greg, as a Texas State mile champion.

In their first season together, Craig made sizeable improvements going from a 26:30 8km cross country runner to a 25 minute performer. The university also banked a conference title and year on year the Kiwi continued to improve.

"I was almost never hurt during for five years there but much of my philosophy was not trying to win everything at once," he says. "We were always trying to climb the ladder one rung at a time. If I climb a rung each year, I know I will eventually get to the top."

Under the full support of his coach he redshirted in 2015-16 - so he did not officially compete for his college but as an unattached runner - in an effort to reach a peak performance for the 2016-17 season.

The move worked a charm. In 2015-16 he made big gains running a sub 14-minute 5000m time - of 13:52.57 - for the first time and also winning the 10,000m at the prestigious Penn Relays in a PB of 29:18.13 - a performance he describes as a "crazy experience."

Then this year he earned the honour of competing in his first ever NCAA Track and Field Championships, where he finished 13th in a high quality 5000m final.

"I did reasonably well during the last track season," he says. "I felt I had a chance of winning the NCAA's but things didn't go 100 per cent to plan. But my team won all three conference titles and I couldn't ask for much more.

"You can't beat the US College experience I often faced athletes who were not far off the best in the world (two 5000m finalists at the NCAA Championships Canada's Justyn Knight and Marc Scott of Great Britain both competed at the recent IAAF World Championships in London). This showed me how far I needed to go, which is very humbling but also gives me a lot of confidence for the future."

Returning to New Zealand in June after five years of Stateside living, Craig is now once again coached by his father, Greg.

Training right through to the New Zealand Cross Country Championships he hoped to bank his first national title "to make a little bit of a name for himself" and duly delivered in Auckland by striking gold by a margin of 17 seconds from Dan Balchin.

"I know Dan and Jono (Jackson) are tremendous athletes, but I felt the experience of me running in the US and running against some of the best in the world would help me favourably," says Craig whose thoughts proved prescient.

As for the future, he knows to qualify in the 5000m and 10,000m for next April's Commonwealth Games will be "tough" but he hopes to "give it a shot." Beyond that he is looking to target the 2019 World Championships in Doha and 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Before then he plans to make his half-marathon debut in Kerikeri in November before preparing for the domestic track campaign, where he is sure to be a major threat.

Possessing a very rhythmic running-style he has "a hunch" his best event could well go on to be the 10,000m and with his dad in his corner and an outstanding running family to draw upon he believes he has the perfect support network to excel.

"You can't put a price on having your coach live in the same house," he says. "I have been surrounded by the sport since I a very young kid. It seemed like every day being around the course my mum and dad would talk about an athletics meeting, a runner or a training plan. We were engorged with knowledge from a very young age and that is a tremendous advantage."