Over the Moon: Kiwi on top of the world

By Kineta Knight

Melissa Moon. Photo / Getty Images
Melissa Moon. Photo / Getty Images

It took a giant ape a fair few frames of a Hollywood feature film to climb to the top of New York's Empire State Building.

It took one petite Kiwi a mere 13 minutes and 13 seconds.

Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong brought the New York icon to Wellington, where the Miramar-based Weta Workshops helped recreate the famous skyscraper. And this week, another Wellingtonian made that building all her own.

Melissa Moon charged her 160cm frame up 86 flights of stairs to beat all the other women runners to the top, denying American Cindy Moll-Harris her fifth title.

As the starter gun was fired, Moll-Harris was the first runner into the stairwell. Moon didn't see her back again till a dozen floors up.

"I could hear this heavy breathing and I thought, 'Jeez, I'm catching her'. So I knew now was the time. If you're catching somebody, they're fading and you're improving, and so I made an aggressive move."

Through her sport of mountain running - she is a former world champ - she is used to charging several kilometres straight uphill. She knows how to take pain.

But it is knowing how to control her brain that it is the most important part, she says.

"Sport for me is all about the mind. Throughout my career I've learnt that the physical is important, but what sets you apart and gives you that extra edge is if you can keep your head together."

There is something girlish about Moon's open face, big blue eyes and blonde pigtails.

It is the legacy of a childhood in which she was exposed to an enormous range of, frankly, eye-opening experiences. That, and a lot of waterproof blue eyeliner.

"In my sport, you've got to run your guts out so much, you have to push the boundaries, and look awful so much, that it's nice to try and look feminine," Moon laughs.

"I'm an athlete and as long as I give it 150 per cent I can warrant wearing blue eyeliner, mascara, foundation and sparkly earrings ... I'm not a flake, I'm a very honest runner and I'll run till I'm sick, so I've got to make myself look semi-nice."

The 40-year-old attributes her calm focus before her races to her Buddhist faith. She spent her childhood living in Hong Kong where she was introduced to eastern religions.

"Meditation is a big part of it and just keeping that calm composure, keeping positive thoughts running through your mind ... that centres you to being a very relaxed person, particularly before a race."

When she was a teenager, she got to know her mother's second cousin, poet Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk, who would spend his summers in Wellington and then, during our winters, he would head to the south of France.

De Montalk gained notoriety when he became the centre of an obscenity trial at the Old Bailey, London, in 1932. He was supported by Leonard and Virginia Woolf and other leading writers of their day - but they failed to sway the judge.

De Montalk was sentenced to prison for publishing a manuscript of erotic translations and from there on became increasingly eccentric, dressing in faux-medieval robes and laying claim to the throne of Poland.

Moon says he was an interesting character to get to know.

"He wore robes and was into Sanskrit, he had shrines - and he was just out of the box. It wasn't until I got older that I realised how different he actually was."

Melissa's parents live just beneath Victoria University, where they both once had offices.

Her mother, Stephanie de Montalk, is also a well-respected poet and writer. Since her provocative relative's death in 1997, Stephanie has written a book, Unquiet World, about her controversial cousin's life.

"It is great to have had an eccentric in the family, I think," says Stephanie drily.

John Miller, Melissa's father, is a long-haired lawyer and lecturer who appears often on the six o'clock news and was named Wellingtonian of the Year for his work helping ACC claimants who had been wrongfully denied their entitlements.

Melissa was guided into professional running 15 years ago by her former husband, Clive Moon.

Clive, 23 years Melissa's senior, says her win "exemplifies her capacity to endure".

He adds: "That's a capacity and a quality that works as much in an event as it does in life."

The age difference and Clive's blindness was never a problem for Melissa.

"Age has never been a thing for me. You fall for the person, you don't fall for the age," she says. "It's what's in their soul and who they are in their head that's always been important to me."

The pair separated about 10 years ago, but remain close friends. For 18 months now, Melissa has been with a new partner - whom she politely declined to name because "he is a very private person".

He may not be a world champion runner, but he does get out jogging in his lunch hours and, she says, has done a few half-marathons.

But, through her sport, Melissa has become accustomed to travelling alone. She was in New York by herself. She is used to the solitude, she still relies heavily support from home - her parents and three brothers.

Her brothers told her how proud they were of her win this week.

"I wasn't brought up like your typical girl. I had to fight for my rights," she recalls.

"There were no Barbie dolls or anything. It was non-stop cricket, bullrush and wrestling. I suppose, if I look back, it was my upbringing that brought out my real competitive edge."

But, looking forward, Melissa has set her sights on a new challenge - the world's new tallest building.

"Dubai! And once they announce they've got a stair-race there, that's the one I want to tackle. That's 168 floors. It's unbelievable but it feels so right.

"I know I'm completely mad, but life is way too short not to take on these challenges."

- Herald on Sunday

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