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About halfway through the race of her life, 21-year-old Alice Mason strode past a Beijing Olympic champion and momentarily brooded.

"Oh my God, what am I doing? Am I going to regret this?" thought Mason, an Auckland scientist, as she overtook Romania's marathon gold medallist Constantina Dita during the Great Australian Run on Sunday.

The concentration and effort required soon squelched the tactical doubts from her head. Just as well.

As she surged on in the 15km race, she claimed more valuable scalps (including Australia's recent world cross-country champion Benita Johnson) and finished second only to Kenya's Catherine Ndereba, the world marathon champion and Beijing silver medal winner.

Mason's run, in a time of 51m 27s, had even some running aficionados scratching their heads. "Alice who?" they asked.

Those who have followed her career since her tentative start at Wellington Girls College knew better - Sunday's result in Melbourne was a breakthrough, sure, but one that had been hinted at.

She earned her start in the race courtesy of an invitation from the event organisers who had noted her dominant performance at the premier Sir Barry Curtis 10km in Manukau in October when she won in 33m 36s.

That race had followed a stunning anchor run at the National Road Relays in Dunedin when she hauled her Pakuranga team from third to first with a sizzling last lap, gobbling up a 2m 38s deficit and stretching the eventual winning margin to 1m 40s. In August, she claimed second at the New Zealand cross-country champs and fifth at the Australian nationals.

Success, though, has been hard-won and not without sacrifice.

Mason moved to Auckland a year ago after completing biomedical science studies at Wellington's Victoria University. At the suggestion of former world mountain running champion Kate McIlroy she had started to be coached by Auckland-based John Bowden and figured it would be better to be in the same city as her coach.

It was a fresh start for the Wellingtonian, but things fell into place and she soon snared a job as an embryologist at Fertility Associates, a role which sees her working in a laboratory helping to create life.

"It's really good to keep things in perspective," Mason said.

Over the winter Bowden had her improving her fitness to a level she could not envisage. "At the end of last track season, John said to me, 'This winter you're going to be so much fitter'. And I thought, 'What? I already am fit'."

She stepped up her mileage to about 120km a week, but Mason puts her improvement down to an increase in the quality rather than the quantity of her training.

The base-building has been designed to boost her strength for the track season when she aims to continue running her favourite event, the 3000m steeplechase. "I think it suits me. It's 3km but the hurdles make it more equivalent to 5km."

During the winter, she mulled over the goal of the World University Games next July. But with the leap she has made, she is now not sure exactly where she will set her sights.

"I guess I will have to see how the track season goes," she said. "Whatever it is, you have to do the qualifying times."

Mason said Bowden's influence has been crucial and she also credits Olympic 5000m finalist Anne Hare who coached her at school.

"She taught us to be professional and about the importance of nutrition and recovery, things not all coaches do."

Mason joined her local running club when she was about 9, but victories did not come naturally. Asthma held her back, though it's an issue she now has under control.

"I didn't do massively well at school, but I've always run. Even when I wasn't doing well, I thought I'd just keep going in the hope I would one day," she said.

Such perseverance was well-placed. She pressed on and looked up to runners like McIlroy and, on the international scene, Ethiopian superstar Haile Gebrselassie.

On Sunday, Gebrselassie was also in Melbourne, cruising to victory in the men's race.

"I sat down at [the post-race] dinner and looked across and thought, 'Oh, my goodness, there's Gebrselassie'.

"I guess I was a little bit star-struck."

Her reaction was understandable - almost as much of a shock, no doubt, her more-fancied opponents must have felt when Mason blazed past them on Sunday.

Alice Mason

Age: 21.
Lives: Auckland, but comes from Wellington.
Works: Embryologist at Fertility Associates.
International experience: Second at the Great Australian Run, Melbourne.