Although there are fewer athletes attending the Athletics New Zealand Cross Country Championship at the weekend than competed at New Zealand Schools in June, the Athletics New Zealand Championships is the major domestic cross country event of the year.
The nature of the event with smaller centre teams does not attract younger runners in the way that the secondary school event where so many are competing for their schools and thus buying into the team culture of the school's event.
Athletics New Zealand should have a good look at why so many who competed in Timaru are not competing in Upper Hutt at the weekend. Such an analysis needs not only to look at the make up of the races, but distances run and cost of entry.
Whanganui has 11 athletes competing at the weekend. Four of the five schools' internationals who will be running at Wollongong at the Australian Championships later in August have entered. New Zealand School's team captain Sarah Lambert starts in the Under 20 grade and will be running her first race over 6km (4km at New Zealand Schools).
Lambert has prepared well and should handle the extra distance. Unfortunately, Manawatu/Whanganui (MWA) does not have a scoring team.
However, in the under 18 MWA fields a strong team headed by Liam Back and joined by Collegiate and New Zealand Schools team members Andres Hernandez and George Lambert.
The fourth team member is Andre Le Pine Day from Manawatu who is also in the New Zealand Schools Team to Australia. Le Pine Day won the MWA under 18 Championship ahead of George Lambert. The only fly in the ointment is around Andres Hernandez who at the time of writing is unwell and if unable to start will seriously dent realistic MWA team medal chances.
New Zealand schools champion Liam Back will start as favourite although he is likely to have a close battle with Will Anthony of Wellington who finished a close second to Back in Timaru at the New Zealand Schools Championships. Back only broke the shackles over the final 500 metres of the race. Back has learned how to cope with being favourite.
As before New Zealand Schools Back chose to race over distance in his final race in the build-up. In June he chose to run over 8km at Dorne Cup where he finished a highly creditable third in the senior men's race. For the New Zealand Championships this weekend he chose to again run over 8km competing successfully to win the Wellington under 20 Championship. Strangely the Wellington Championships were not run over the championship course.
Marseille Bowie and Sarah Mathews will run over 5km in the under 18 grade while Sarah's mother Di runs in the master's grades. Four younger athletes will compete against slightly older athletes in the under 16 races and should gain valuable experience.
Lucy Monkton and Josephine Perkins won gold medals as part of the Collegiate Junior team win in Timaru (Perkins in both the three and six to score event with Monkton in the six to score in what was her first major race). Both will gain valuable experience as will Pascale Bowie (Marseille's sister) and John Bryant in the boy's event at under 16 level.
I was reminded at Dave McKinlay's funeral last week of the huge part volunteers play in New Zealand life. I knew Dave because his daughter Carol was one of the first athletes I coached when I came to New Zealand in the early 1970s. Carol ran with some success over 400m.
In 1977 I perhaps rather foolishly took on the organisation of the New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships. I quickly realised that I had been a bit ambitious in taking on the challenge and as race day approached, I realised the enormity of the task.
Dave came to the rescue and took time off work to repair fences, build a finish area and a multitude of other tasks. I was relieved and forever grateful. We ran a successful event which was the first of three in Whanganui.
I learned at the funeral that I was not the only person to benefit from Dave's generosity and so many others over many years equally gained benefit from his generosity as a volunteer. New Zealand depends so heavily on such volunteers. We can only hope that this aspect of New Zealand life continues as sport and so many other areas of life depend on such generosity. Time is one of the most precious gifts we can offer.