Gabrielle O'Rourke is among the favourites for this month's Wellington Half Marathon, which doubles as the NZ Half Marathon Championship.
The 47-year-old teacher won the NZ Champs in 1997 and 1998 and was second when they were held in the capital last year. O'Rourke is coached by Kevin Ross, who is famous for being a sub-four-minute miler back in his heyday. Ross coaches many of New Zealand's best women very much under the radar. Not many are like O'Rourke. We caught up with one of the characters of the New Zealand running scene, who loves teaching, being around her family and running.
What makes this run a special race for you?
It's in Wellington! I ran it back in 1987 and in 1991 I broke 1h 20m for the first time in this event [it was the ICL Half Marathon back then], so I have good memories of the race. My coach back then passed away suddenly just before Easter this year. I recall him roaring at me with 1km to go that year to push me through to a PB, and he'll be there in spirit as I head in the final kilometre of the race this year.
I love running at home. It's so much easier than travelling to race. The support is also better when you're on home turf and the family comes out and cheers for me, which always gives me a buzz. We also have dozens of students and staff from the middle school doing the 10km to raise money for the Blind Foundation.
This year the race doubles as the NZ Champs, and you have been rated among the favourites at 47. How do you see that?
I don't really know who else is running apart from Sally Gibbs, so it's hard to know whether I should be rated. Sally is truly amazing and she ran phenomenally well at the Rotorua Marathon to take the win in a very good time on that course. She has a proven record of good times in many distances over the past couple of years. She makes us "young" girls in our 40s seem slow! I would love to podium in the open race and that has to be the goal going into a NZ Championship. Masters titles don't mean quite so much to me yet.
What has been the key to your longevity in elite running?
I guess it's a combination of things. 1. Having a coach who is able to put a balanced schedule together has been a key element. I'm pretty driven and he has to pull me back in line when I get carried away and want to do more or run at a harder effort than I should. I have a good background from my former coach, who had me running up to 250km a week back in the 1990s, so I know how to work hard. 2. My mum is so inspirational. She's had some real battles to fight but just gets on with it. I think she's instilled that attitude "never give up when the going gets tough" in her children. 3. My passion for running. I love everything about it. I never take for granted the blessing I have of actually being able to physically get out there and run. I thrive on the challenges and I have made such wonderful friends.
What have you learned from working with Kevin Ross?
He's done an amazing job of keeping me on the road at my age. I really enjoy doing Saturday sessions with some of the others in the squad. I've only had one day off since March last year so have been really lucky on the injury front. We got up to over 160km leading up to the Rotorua Marathon and survived so he must be doing something right!
How difficult is it to fit in training around your role as a teacher?
I do my harder workouts in the early morning and squeeze a second run in during the day or after school. I'm pretty organised and I love teaching so it's okay as long as nothing unexpected gets thrown at me! The head of maths at Scots is the most supportive and understanding colleague I could ask for.
What advice do you offer to other older athletes, of all levels, who are looking to stay fit and active?
Listen to your body. If something hurts, and I mean "ouch" as opposed to tired "hurt", ease back or find an alternative. Stationary bike, walking solidly on hills, swimming are all beneficial if you can't run. If you're new to fitness then ease into it slowly. Set realistic goals and try to find a support person - preferably one willing to do workouts with you.
Are you inspired by the weekend warriors who run races like this?
Elite athletes appreciate how hard it is for some people to exercise and when I see people out there giving it their best at whatever level in an event I get a real buzz.