Our budding botanist lines up London

by Grant McLean

Fresh off a successful track season marked by several personal bests and culminating in his first National Open 1500 metre title we thought we would try and catch-up with Hamish Carson. Not an easy thing to do as he juggles kicking-off a Masters in Botany, his job in the back blocks as a Park Ranger and of course running very fast. Hamish is doing things his own way, choosing not to take the well worn scholarship path that most talented young New Zealand athletes jump at, he has decided to base himself in New Zealand to further both his running and his studies.

Let’s hear a bit more about what makes our latest National Champion tick.

A broad sporting base

Hamish Carson has a varied early sporting background in which running did not feature either in preference or application. Hamish recalls his early dabbling in athletics aged 10 for the Paraparaumu Track & Field Club; “In 1999 my best time for the 1500m was 7:06.21 and 3:50.38 for the 800m, and my best event by far was the discus!”. From seven to 13, inline and field hockey were the main sports of choice. In the winter of 2001 Hamish took up cross country skiing down in Wanaka, after two seasons of downhill skiing at Ruapehu, eventually winning the national championships in both the classic and freestyle forms for the M12 age grade. On returning to Kapiti, Hamish took up harriers, mostly to maintain his fitness for cross country skiing. Hamish joined Graham Tattersall’s training group at the end of 2002, and had his last season of field hockey in 2003. Engaging in a range of sports at a young age is no bad thing of course and echoes the pathways of the Snell’s and Willis’s who also started out experiencing (and often excelling) in a wide range of sports and activities.

A passion for the outdoors environment – for work and play

Hamish appears to have an affinity for the natural environment which has developed since the early years. This has translated into both his work, study and running which are integrally linked. Hamish works as a Ranger for the Greater Wellington Regional Council; “[I work] full time when I’m not at University and part time the rest of the year. I am often based in Queen Elizabeth Park but also work at Battle Hill and Belmont Regional parks. The work involves re-vegetation projects, nursery work, pest and weed control, track maintenance and all the other jobs to keep the parks ticking over. These locations and the Akatarawa Forest Park are also ideal for training which he mostly does on his own. Even track training is relatively natural – on the grass track at Paraparaumu Domain.

Going native

Hamish’s academic studies are an extension of his working life as he develops scientific expertise in the flora and fauna that surround him in his conservation role. After completing a BSc in Ecology and Biodiversity Hamish has begun an MSc in Plant Molecular Systematics and Biodiversity. Hamish explains [warning geek speak ahead, Ed]; “My thesis will be about the evolutionary history of the plant genus Myosotis in New Zealand. Species of Myosotis are commonly called forget-me-nots, and are frequently planted in gardens for their striking blue flowers. The garden varieties are all European, and the 34 or so New Zealand species are rare or endangered, and are often confined to alpine areas. My job will be to collect a sample of all the known species, extract and sequence the DNA, and compare these to build an evolutionary tree of the group. I will be working with botanists from both Victoria University and Te Papa.”

The plan on completing the masters is to gradually develop a career as a Botanist, gradually because more immediate plans involve a first career as a professional runner (more about that later).

Joining Scottish

Making the A team

Hamish joined Scottish from Kapiti Harriers in 2008, a positive decision for him and the club; “The move to Scottish has been fantastic. The support I have received along with the encouragement and expectation to succeed has been invaluable. Making it into the A team for the road relays last year in Akaroa has been a highlight, but I do miss the B Boys.”

The A team runners certainly enjoyed having Hamish in the team, as he brought a mixture of enthusiasm and quirkiness to the team environment. The day before the relay the team went over the course with Hamish pointing out the scientific nomenclature and characteristics of the various native species en route. He then created some anxiety among his teammates by getting out of the van for a ‘stretch’, only to tear off up the uphill leg for a kilometre, and it wasn’t even his leg for the next day!

Finally a National title and a Big one

In March, Hamish achieved a significant milestone in winning his first national title. By winning the blue ribbon 1500m event, his name joins an honour’s board with an unparalleled history in terms of the stature of previous winners (Snell, Walker, Dixon, Willis). To Hamish it was a relief to finally grab the title, “winning a national title has been incredibly elusive, which makes this title all the more special. I’ve come 2nd in five other national championships. Hamish joked; “though I’m just lucky Nick Willis didn’t show up.”

The national title comes on top of a year marked by constant improvement including a personal best for 1500m of 3.44. Now mixing it up and beating top national and international competition, Hamish is benefitting from a positive race mentality that also fuels his confidence; “I’ve never been afraid of racing people better than me, but going into the next track season, I think I will be a lot more confident about being able to be right up there in the big races.”

In the company of Giants

Scottish members were very proud to see Hamish give Nick Willis a run for his money in the New Zealand 3000m Championships. Hamish relished the opportunity; “I really enjoyed the 3000m champs race. It was the first time I had raced Nick so it was good to see that I could almost keep up with his final sprint. Nick is a really good guy. He’s answered all my questions and even helped to get me into some tough races. Having him around for part of our season really raised the profile of our sport, and he seems to want nothing more than to see young NZ runners make it to his level.”

In addition to the self confidence, there appear to be three key ingredients contributing to Hamish’s growing stature as a runner: racing, Mum and Arch.

Racing to train, training to  race

One of the things that I find refreshing about Hamish’s approach is the amount and variety of racing he does. From off-road racing, to racing the Brooks 5k several times in winter including bettering his own course record with a scorching 14.51 in the wind, to regularly racing on the track, he is prominent on the local running scene, high-striding in his Wellington Scottish singlet. Hamish; “I love racing, so I try to incorporate as much of it into my training as possible. The Brooks 5ks were heaps of fun and helped me get in to shape a lot faster. They also kept me motivated in my training during the lull between cross country and track. In fact I’d rate my 14.51 just as highly as my 3.44 1500 PB.”

To some this racing mentality defies logic and reflects a lack of focus, however it is interesting to reflect that regular racing harks back to the days of Walker, Quax and Dixon who often raced themselves into shape over a wide variety of races, often week in and week out. At the end of the day, Hamish is progressively getting faster.

“In fact I’d rate my 14.51 just as highly as my 3.44 1500 PB.”

An amusing aside to Hamish’s waterfront 5k efforts were the stares of incredulity from onlookers as he flashed by them at a near suicidal 20 kilometres per hour with his golden locks flowing behind him (likely unaware they are witnessing first hand part of New Zealand’s middle distance future).

Thanks Mum

While Hamish doesn’t look to any running icons for inspiration he does acknowledge the significant role his Mum Julie plays in supporting his athletic career. “Mum is amazing. She makes sure I get up in the morning and out on my run, is there with the stopwatch at all my track sessions, and tries to find enough food to feed me.” The interviewer also recalls Julie bringing Hamish in from the Coast for the A team’s final Road Relay training session a week before the National Road Relay last year, as well as for all those Brooks 5ks – now that is the kind of commitment that is inspiring.

Arch and Me

Another key ingredient to the success that is Team Carson is the sage advice of one of New Zealand athletics most esteemed coaches in Arch Jelley. Hamish explains “I have enormous respect for Arch who has been my coach for nearly five years now. He’s an incredibly intelligent and patient man who never puts pressure on me, and takes in to account all aspects of my life. He explains the purpose behind particular parts of training, and always weaves in an invaluable story or example from the past. As he lives in Auckland I’m lucky to see him more than once or twice a year, but we keep in regular phone and email contact, although it can be pretty hard to get hold of him as he’s always out doing something. It’s great to have some of my recent races filmed by NZRun, so he gets a chance to see how I’m running.”

Based here – but aiming to go global

Hamish’s eligibility for US scholarships will run out soon, but he is glad he decided to stay in New Zealand. Hamish had three offers during his college days but none of them really interested him. He explains: “The main reason I didn’t want to go searching out a US Scholarship was that I would have had to have left Arch as my coach, and that seemed a daft idea. I was also wary of stories of athletes over racing [interesting! Ed] with the focus being on gaining points for your college rather than the long term benefits of the athlete. My study interest of NZ plants also had a slight bearing on my decision.”

So what of Hamish’s running goals for the next two years; “I would really love to get my 1500m time below 3.40 next year. I will need to compete in as many of the top races in Australia as possible, and ideally some of the big European meets. The World University Games are in China next year, so that could be a good meet to aim for. And the big goal is clear; I’ll be doing everything I can to make sure I’m on the start line for the 2012 Olympics in London.

The decision to remain based in New Zealand and ‘going it alone’, while admirable, does raise the issue of funding, sponsorships and race access, as the travelling expenses will be high and it will be critical for Hamish to gain entry to quality meets overseas to further improve his times. It is times like this Hamish needs a benevolent benefactor and the help of the likes of Nick Willis, so this is a ‘shout out’ to anyone that can help our rising star.

Watch out world

So Hamish Carson is very much his own man, carving out his own path. A unique and intelligent runner who appears to have a grounded and focused outlook that could see him achieve great things in future. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit down in front of our television screens in August 2012 to see a Scottish athlete line up in one of the premier track events of the Olympic Games. We certainly wish him well as he sets his sights on London.

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