THE SPIRIT OF CAMARADERIE AND SOLIDARITY PERSONIFIED BY THIS TRIO WEARING The SILVER FERN

For a long time we have associated running as an individual sport. The grandeur of the 100 meters, the excitement of the steeplechase or the endurance of the marathon have all been glorified as individual performances. Very rarely, minus the relays and cross country team standings, do we see true team dynamics in action.

Mountain running, a not so distant relative of mainstream athletics, prides itself in team spirit in addition to individual accolades. The notion of “there is no ‘I’ in Team” was in full display by Team New Zealand at the first Commonwealth Mountain and Ultradistance Running Championships. It was impossible not to take notice of that, in the last race on the last day, in Keswick.

The Kiwis are a powerhouse when it comes to mountain running. Jonathan Wyatt, Anna Frost, Melissa Moon are household names in the sport. New Zealand dominance in individual and team standings was further exemplified in the Commonwealth Championships by the trio of Sarah Biss, Lara Phillips and Moon taking silver at the Up- & Down- event. It is hard not to remember, the women wearing the silver fern proudly on the podium, taking the championships by strength and creating memories of a lifetime.

All three women are very accomplished runners in their own right. Biss has a personal best of 1:19:20 in the half-marathon. Phillips has established outstanding times at a very young age with a 2:42 marathon personal best. Moon is a two-time World Mountain Running Champion. But what further epitomizes these gifted athletes, is the way they work with one another, to carry their team to the finish line.

I asked all three athletes on how this “team aspect” came into play in Keswick. Biss jumped on this and said, “We all had periods in the races running next to each other and we exchanged words of encouragement. Lara and Melissa (and Anna in the “all up”) are perfect teammates.” Phillips further explained, “Personally, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to gain experience by competing in both mountain running events.  We were lucky enough in that we could have three team members in each event, so we could help each other to perform our best as a team.” Veteran Moon added on the team dynamics, “It is certainly always nice to have a team aspect in such an individualised sport such as athletics and it certainly pulls you together as a team. I think runners are very self sufficient individuals who have learnt to become very good at supporting themselves.”

I was intrigued that, regardless of the team standings at the end, there is still the individual competition, how intense is it and how does it fit into the grand scheme of things. Phillips alluded to this, “I have always gotten much more joy from my endeavours with a team, than anything I have ever accomplished as an individual.” Biss agreed and said, “Possibly, but I can honestly say we were all far more focussed upon beating the athletes from other countries than each other, in the hope of securing team medals.” Moon touched on this subject too, “Absolutely I know I certainly place a lot of expectation on myself to achieve certain goals when I compete. Runners have to be internally motivated.”

 

                                                                       Moon-Biss-Phillips

                                                          Melissa Moon, Sarah Biss and Lara Phillips accepting their silver medal

 

These athletes winning the silver medal is only half the story. The other half are the different routes that they have taken to reach the elite level they are at today. Biss has spent majority of her athletic career wearing the national colours in the international circuit. However, she took a 7-year break at the start of the century due to illness and returned back to the competitive field in 2008 finishing on the podium in several races. Her comeback at the Commonwealth Championships was astonishing considering she spent the end of the worlds, two weeks earlier, in an ambulance due to an asthma attack. She remained upbeat pre-commonwealths, “I tried to stay positive, and remember the other times I had been able to turn things around, and thankfully my lungs improved enough the day before to confirm that I would be racing.”

Phillips was born and raised in the eastern coast of United States born to Kiwi dad. She moved to New Zealand six years ago and has embraced her ancestral lands. She has quickly risen to be one of the top marathoners in the country and was the top finisher of this trio at the Up & Down event in Keswick. Her excitement is evident, “I love New Zealanders, their attitude to life, and the lifestyle I am so fortunate to live here.” In addition she says, “I was really proud to wear a silver fern and be accepted as a kiwi, even though I will always have my American accent.”

Former World Champion Moon is an icon, of sorts, in her home. She has made her mark in the mountains and has now started to become a legend in ‘stair-climbing’. She and Bliss have raced competitively over the years in the cross country circuit. Moon, is renowned in the mountain running world, as the one with the calm demeanour and competitive spirit. When asked about her preference between outdoor mountains or indoor stairs, she said, “My heart and soul are with the mountains and I am energized every time I compete in mountain races. I am racing stairs simply to keep pushing those boundaries mentally and physically in sport.”

The first Commonwealth Championships put the spotlight on the mountain and ultradistance running during the race week. I asked the athletes about their views on the meet. In regards to this Biss said, “The fell running history and culture of the Lake District area added to the experience, it was different to the passion, emotion and cow bells of Europe, but just as valuable to the atmosphere of the event.” Moon further expanded and stressed, “It was a very memorable experience, beautiful location and family like atmosphere which is something I will remember.”

To a number of the athletes, the Commonwealth Championships brought a more intimate feeling to the whole event atmosphere. Phillips explained, “I loved being able to watch the other athletes and get to know them over several days.” To add to the excitement, for the first time ever, the mountain runners were introduced to their ultrarunning cousins. Biss beamed, “It was one of the highlights, I really enjoyed getting to know the NZ ultra athletes and have kept in touch with a couple since. They thought we were mad and we thought they were mad, so we got on very well.”

It is no secret that all three of these ladies have mutual respect and appreciation for each other. During the course of the interview, the teammates could not stop complementing each other. There was a true sense of ‘belonging’ when it came to these athletes and their team. The “not-so” well guarded secret of true team success story is ‘friendship’. Moon, Biss and Phillips are friends first and that is why they are strong teammates second.

Phillips is the younger one of the group and the most recent addition to this growing tradition of Kiwi mountain running. I asked her what inspires her, “I am really motivated just to challenge myself, meet inspiring people, have adventures, and explore my capacities.” Pushing the envelope on any given day is beyond doubt the best motivator. She added, “I live for the adrenaline, the exhaustion and the soreness of a life lived to the fullest.”

Mountain running has entered the main realm of athletics but where is it headed in the next five years? Moon helped me with this, “Well I see it grow leaps and bounds now that it is part of the IAAF and we may even see it move to becoming an Olympic sport which would be fantastic.” This is a dream that all mountain runners are holding dear and working hard to making it into a reality.

This led me to ask the next obvious question, how does mountain running, fit into the Commonwealth Games. Biss touched on this, “I am biased, but I believe it would fit in very well!” She added, “Running is such a basic sport, that so many can do, and I think any addition to the existing track and field events and marathon would do very well.” This is what the objective of the first Commonwealth Championships were and we hope that this would be accomplished in the near future.

The three athletes have come a way from the successes of that warm sunny autumn afternoon in Keswick. Biss has run a personal best of 2:47:11 in Nagano, Japan. Phillips has finished second at the Auckland Marathon followed by a fourth place finish at the New Zealand Marathon Championships. Moon is logging her miles on stair climbing races around the world recently winning the Taipei 101.  

These women are achieving unparalleled success in their events on an individual basis. There is unquestionably immense potential with each and every one of these athletes. The sky is the limit what they can attain on any given weekend and all three of them have proven this over and over again throughout their athletic careers.

However, one of the greatest talents that Moon, Phillips and Biss bring is their competitive edge as a team. In addition to the greater love of the sport, the ladies also share a common link of Lydiardism, incorporating this into their training and racing. Between them they have studied and understood running, merged their knowledge of the sport and complemented each other on the mountains. They recognize the fact that there is no “I” in Team.

The mountain running community now awaits, the next time this dynamic trio of Sarah Biss, Melissa Moon and Lara Phillips, toes the line on the mountains again.

 

Nadeem Khan

Media and Communication Officer

nadeem.khan@iau-ultramarathon.org