Whanganui athlete Liam Back retained his New Zealand under 18 Cross Country title at the weekend at Harcourt Park, Hutt Valley and added to his growing reputation as a successful and versatile middle distance runner.
Over the 12 months since last year's cross country victory Back has won the New Zealand under 18 800 metre and 1500 metre titles and in June won the New Zealand Schools Cross Country to join the short list of leading runners who have taken the calendar year double.
It has not however been a trouble-free year for Back. A niggling injury in November worsened and he only finished 5th in the New Zealand Schools 800 metre in December and struggled a week later in Cairns when he finished mid-field in the Australian Schools in races won with times well below his best. Back only resumed full training in February and his successes in March at the New Zealand Championships were on limited preparation.
It was also not all plain sailing at Harcourt Park at the weekend. Will Anthony (Wellington), who had finished second to Back at the Schools Championships in Timaru, set a blistering pace taking the field through the first of three 2km laps in just over six minutes.
Although the pace dropped a little over the second lap Anthony, Back and Maximillian Yanzick (Canterbury) had opened a gap on the field with William Taylor (Waikato) working to close that gap.
Just over a kilometre from the finish Back fell at one of the tight corners. With still some distance to run Back did not panic but set about closing the small gap that had developed taking himself into a strong position to strike for home in the final 400 metres.
Back's final surge again proved decisive. Anthony was second with Taylor's strong final lap took bronze. All three will renew their rivalry in Wollongong at the end of the month in the Australian Championships.
The Tasman trip is important for Back as a year ago he suffered from heat problems on the Sunshine Coast, dropping back from the tight leading trio to stagger to the finish mid-pack.
In December, as mentioned earlier, he struggled with injury and over 3000 metres in the Australian Track and Field Championships in Sydney where he was out-manoeuvred by the Victorian team tactics to finish 5th. Wollongong offers an opportunity to complete unfinished business.
Sarah Lambert, who will captain the New Zealand Girls' team in Wollongong, won the bronze in the under 20 race at the weekend. Lambert had taken bronze in 2018 in the under 18 grades but the bronze at the weekend was against a stronger field and was also Lambert's first race over 6km.
The medal was a just reward for the hard-working Lambert who had prepared thoroughly for the challenge of a race 2km further than the distance run at New Zealand Schools in June when she finished fourth. Lambert will again be running 6km in Australia and the weekend's efforts will have been a confidence boost for the determined Lambert.
Sarah's brother George is also in the New Zealand Schools and should be delighted with his 7th place in the under 18 race. Lambert still has another year in the grade and his solid no-nonsense approach to training and racing makes him an athlete to watch.
Lambert was perhaps a little too conservative in the first of the three laps (in sharp contrast to his running a year ago when he would set out too fast and died). He made up ground on the next two laps with an especially impressive final lap.
His seventh place strongly justifies his selection in the 12-strong team to Australia as he finished ahead of team mates who had beaten him at New Zealand Schools.
The fourth Collegiate member of the New Zealand team, Andres Hernandez, was unable to run which was sad as it left the Manawatu/Whanganui (MWA) team with only three runners in the four to score team event. This almost certainly cost the Centre a team medal but because he is the New Zealand Boys' captain and the Australian Champs are just 17 days away, it was probably a wise decision.
The other Whanganui representative in the 24-strong New Zealand team, Rebecca Baker (Whanganui High School) had Hockey commitments. Baker, like last year, will add strength and depth to the New Zealand team.
An exciting experience awaits our five Whanganui New Zealand Schools representatives.