Athletics: Unique training helps mountain running champ

By Steve Landells

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Dougal Thorburn has just become the first man in 15 years to secure back-to-back NZ Mountain running titles. Yet as Steve Landells discovers his route to the achievement was based not just on leg power but also on a set of wheels.

There are a million and one ways to rise to the status of a national level athlete, but surely few share the same story as Dougal Thorburn who believes his breakthrough was achieved when training up to 50km a week pushing a baby buggy!

It was during this period from 2008 to 2012 - living in Masterton and later Dunedin - when Dougal decided to combine his training needs with the additional benefit of aiding his daughter's (first Lucy and then later Audrey) sleep and giving his wife, Amy, a break.
He describes the training as "a win, win " for both his family life and running training and in 2009 he competed at the World Mountain Running Championships in Italy before the following year running an eye-catching half-marathon PB of 1:06:16 in Christchurch.

Reflecting on this period the self-coached Dougal explains: "It was probably spending all that time running with a buggy that transitioned me into a national level runner. I could run at a pace of between 3:03 to 3:05 per kilometre with the buggy and I also ran a sub-nine-minute 3km. I often ran up Mt Flagstaff in Dunedin with it. Obviously, I couldn't do the ultra technical paths (with a buggy) but I think running with the pram certainly improved my core strength and led me to being a lot more efficient with my foot placement."

Since then, despite suffering a frustrating two years of foot-related issues, the Wellington-based GP has emerged as one of New Zealand's more versatile domestic distance runners winning a brace of national mountain running titles as well as national medals over the half-marathon and marathon distance on the road.

It may be a slight exaggeration to say Dougal was born to run but the sport was clearly in his soul from a young age. Initially impressing as a decent primary school sprinter in Christchurch he recalls finding a stopwatch at the age of ten and timing how quickly he could run from his home to school at Mt Pleasant Primary School.

Competitively he started to take the sport more seriously after meeting a very supportive coach and mentor in Chris Todd while attending Christchurch Boys' High School. During his teenage years Dougal won regional age-group cross country titles and secured top ten finishes at New Zealand Secondary School championships. Yet he admits he was no world-beater as a school age athlete.
He later moved to Dunedin to study, yet wherever he lived he was fortunate to come across some great mentors and coaches such as Todd, Lyn Rayner, Rob Mulcahy and Bruce Milne. Yet it was not until the baby buggy pushing years did he begin to make genuine inroads on the national scene.
Feeling "a strong connection" to the great outdoors and the mountains he naturally gravitated towards mountain running and it remains a passion.
"I find it is technically rewarding to run in the mountains, both up and downhill," he explains. "There are so many things to think about such as arm carriage, breathing and posture. I enjoy all the elements."
The 35-year-old has also earned a reputation within the New Zealand mountain running community for as a formidable downhill runner - a fact he believes can be explained by his passion for mountain biking.
"In some ways running downhill are the same skills required as riding a bike downhill," he explains. "Scanning the features of the terrain as quickly as possible - just like on a bike - technically helps when downhill running."
Yet there is far more to Dougal than just mountain running and in 2011 he made a respectable marathon debut in Rotorua, running a time of 2:28:34 for fourth.
Then the following year he enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame when becoming a world record holder for covering the 10km distance pushing a baby buggy in a time of 32:26.
First aware via a running website that the record stood to an Australian at around 34 minutes he was encouraged to give the mark a crack at the New Balance Hill Free event in Dunedin.
"I found out what was required, we had the course measured and although it was a windy day and there was a bit of rough ground, I did it," explains Dougal, who pushed his daughter, Audrey, then aged two-and-a-half, to the record. "It was a bit of fun."
Yet in 2013 he started to encounter a problem with his foot which was later diagnosed as a plantar plate sprain injury. Despite this, he decided to run the New Zealand marathon title in Wellington which he won in a new PB of 2:25:33 - but the victory had significant repercussions.
"To run that marathon on a gammy foot was probably not the best idea because it put me out for a couple of years," explains Dougal.
The road back to fitness has been long and at times frustrating for the Lyall Bay-based father-of-two.
Finally being able to operate off a limited training programme of around 40km he earned him his maiden mountain running title in Nelson last year. While later stepping up his training to around 80km a week the doctor, who shares his work time between a surgery at Porirua and Victoria University, enjoyed a solid outing to place third (2:27:54) in last November's Auckland Marathon.
Now finally able to step up training to around 120km a week this year he believes he is starting to make more gains and that was born out when he became the first Kiwi since Phil Costley some 15 years earlier to clinch back-to-back New Zealand Mountain Running titles with his success in Queenstown last weekend.
On a redesigned course following the wet and windy conditions, Dougal produced a dominant display to clinch a comprehensive victory.
"The win was highly satisfying- a culmination of careful training, positive role models and years of fun in the mountains," he adds.
"I thoroughly enjoyed the event," he says. "The course was exciting, and there was great festive spirit created by things like a good number of competitors, a decent sound system and finishing chute. Having Adrian Bailey's Active QT team organising the event definitely worked with the promotion of the event and I hope that relationship continues in future."
As for the future, Dougal plans to target a PB performance at next month's Christchurch Marathon while later this year he is considering a second crack at the World Mountain Running Championships, which take place in Bulgaria in September.
On his World Mountain running debut seven years ago he finished what he terms an "anonymous" 73rd, but he feels much better equipped for a more prominent showing in this year's edition.
"I've definitely improved and matured as an uphill runner," explains Dougal, who regularly trains as part of his commute to and from work. "Technically I'm a heap more proficient in uphill running, so it is good to know that if I compete on the world stage, I have those improved skills. Mountain running is a lot more popular among African athletes so the overall standard has improved. If I do compete, I hope to make the top 20."
With the foot issues no longer an issue, Dougal also has long-term he has ambitions on the road and harbours a desire to one day run a sub-2:20 marathon.
Yet as his daughters Lucy and Audrey are now aged nine and six, does he ever miss the baby buggy pushing?
"I miss it a little bit, but to be honest I thoroughly enjoy running up the hills (without a buggy)," he explains. "Now the foot issues are behind me it is great to be able to control my training and racing - it is an absolute privilege. To be out in the hills is just fantastic."

- NZ Herald

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