Chris Sanson produced an eye-catching performance to finishing second with a personal best at last weekend's Rotorua Marathon. Steve Landells profiles the burgeoning distance running talent who has emerged from a multi-faceted sporting background.
Over the past couple of decades the general trend has been for former runners to migrate to triathlon however athletics might have won the battle for the attentions of ironman athlete Chris Sanson following his second place finish at the Rotorua Marathon.
Sanson sliced almost a minute-and-a-half from his previous best to record an impressive 2:28:10 on the undulating course which circles the famous lake - a performance which added further belief his future might lie as a runner.
The semi-professional ironman athlete finished an impressive sixth in the long distance Challenge Wanaka event in February before two weeks later placing 15th in the pro race at Ironman NZ.
Yet as Chris explains, competing in these two gruelling endurance challenges felt "like the end of a chapter."
"It is always tough to get through two ironmans in two weeks and I decided I wanted a bit of a change and to focus on running," he explains. "I'm aged 28, so I'm still young enough to make that change and I'm excited about it."
Born and raised in the town of Levin in Manawatu, the Horowhenua College student started out as a talented road cyclist earning a place on the New Zealand junior programme and winning national medals at an age group level.
Boasting good natural endurance as a schoolboy Chris also "dabbled" in running regularly placing in the top three at regional cross country events. He also recalls with a smile his unusual pre-race routine when one year finishing second over 3000m in the Manawatu schools track championships.
"I remember riding my bike up from Levin to Palmerston North (note, the distance is 48km) and everyone telling me that I'd warmed up the wrong muscles," he explains. "That day I still managed to run 9:27, which was not too bad."
Following a decision to restructure cycling funding from the road to the track programme, Chris switched to triathlon and after making the switch to triathlons and coming from a strong cycling background he wisely focused much of his training attention on swimming and running. Yet while he has been unable to make major strides in the water, under the advice of Palmerston North-based coaching stalwart George McConachy he has developed as a formidable runner in ironman events.
Following the Arthur Lydiard coaching model, Chris ramped up his weekly mileage to around 200km a week and in 2012 revealed his rich running potential by clinching a silver medal in the New Zealand Half-Marathon Championships staged in his adopted home city of Palmerston North in a time of 1:09:25.
"I mix my running training with what I have learned from by cycling background," he explains. "It is not what works for many people, but for me it has been really good, although over time I noticed my cycling has got worse and my running better."
With an impressive ability to churn out a 2:50 marathon after completing a 3.9km swim and 180km bike ride since turning semi-pro as an ironman athlete he has earned a pair of top ten finishes at both the Challenge Wanaka and Ironman NZ events.
Yet running has become an increasingly attractive proposition. In 2013 - in what he describes as his first serious crack at the marathon - he secured a bronze medal in a time of 2:29:38 at the New Zealand Marathon Championships in Wellington.
Last year he finished fourth at the Rotorua Marathon in 2:31:30 despite "falling to bits" at 35km, which he believes is because of the excess weight he carries from the swimming and cycling training.
Approaching this year's edition of the historic race around Lake Rotorua, Chris once more adopted his quirky preparation which involved two ironman races across three weeks in late February/early March followed by four weeks complete rest and three weeks of run training at around an average 200km a week.
The recipe may not be written down in any coaching manual, yet Chris was one of four athletes battling a podium spot from the early stages. In a rollercoaster marathon, in which the Palmerston North A & HC athlete kept lost ground to his key rivals on the undulating hills only to flight back on the flat had dropped back to fourth at the final aid station when he found a second wind.
"I took on board some gels I then saw Tony Payne and Ciaran Faherty had dropped off and after passing them with 2km to go I could see Nick (Horspool) up the road and I had a crack at catching him. It was a surprise to me - it all happened so quickly. I went from fourth to second and all of a sudden I was catching first."
Sanson clocked 2:28:10 - 31 seconds adrift of Horspool (Lower Hutt) the newly-minted New Zealand Marathon champion.
The performance in Rotorua has fuelled the belief that Chris' future lie in running. Increasingly stretched by working part-time and training for ironman he believes it makes sense to now pursue his running dreams.
"If you look at the pre-race favourite (in Rotorua) he has run 2:24 and my best was 2:29 (prior to the 2016 race. But my first serious crack at a marathon was in 2013 and I am still learning my trade. I'm quite excited by the thought of a full season of running. I know I must lose about 10kg in weight and get down to 60kg, but I would then love to run some kilometres and one day dip under 2:20 for the marathon. I know it sounds ambitious, but I want to aim high."
Under the guidance of McConachy whom Chris describes "as a great teacher" and based in the "amazing" training environment of Palmerston North he wisely carries out the bulk of his training off-road.
In the short term he aims to enjoy the cross country season with the New Zealand Road Championships in Masterton in September another target. Further down the line the Auckland Marathon may also be on his race schedule.
Yet as he admits "sky's the limit" in terms of his running ambitions and he can't wait to get stuck into the sport.
"It is hard to tell when I start running full-time how much more I can improve, but the great thing about running is you can carry on with a normal life," he explains. "Training for ironman takes up to 35-40 hours a week and still trying to make a living. Running training takes up about 20 hours a week and I now have all this spare time. Now I just want to enjoy the sport and the people I meet."