Simon Keller

In this series, we cast our eye upon other running clubs around New Zealand.

Rowan Hooper, Ariana Harper, Malcolm Hodge, Roger Robinson…all decorated members of one of New Zealand’s greatest running clubs. And also of another of New Zealand’s greatest running clubs: University of Canterbury Athletics. 

Since its founding in 1898, UC has been a permanent fixture at the top of the New Zealand running scene. The club has 14 National Road Relays titles, including five senior men’s and three senior women’s victories during their golden era from 2007-11. Its members today include the star steeplechaser and national representative Rosa Flanagan, and 800m national champion and Olympian Angie Petty. Over the years its membership list has included such names as Mary O’Connor, the Phils Clode and Costley, and – for a brief stay – Rod Dixon.

UC has a transitional membership. It tends to attract younger senior runners, many of whom are based in Christchurch for a few years before leaving for their OEs or in search of jobs elsewhere in New Zealand. Continuity is provided by a few dedicated members, including the senior teams’ mentor Craig Motley, and the current president and 40-year club stalwart Daniel Reese. UC’s great ongoing strength is its ability to return competitive teams to National Road Relays – including this year’s bronze-medal winning senior women’s team, featuring our Ariana – even as the senior membership waxes and wanes. 

Much of the club’s continued competitive success can be put down to its flexibility. At Scottish, Rowan Hooper is captain of a large and established senior men’s team. At UC he joined a senior group that was small but ambitious. The group trained regularly together and formed a shared plan to build themselves into a team that could win National Road Relays – and it was very satisfying when the plan came to fruition. 

The smaller senior group makes logistics easier, and allows the club to invest its efforts in its top teams. Ariana was drawn to UC by the prospect of running with Angie Petty, and has been thrilled by the closeness of the senior women’s team and the enthusiasm with which the club has supported and celebrated its success.

For much of its history, UC was primarily a club for students, with strong links to its namesake university. Bob Keller ran with the club in the late sixties, and he remembers it as composed almost entirely of undergraduates, with a few postgraduate students and Canterbury staff members thrown in. Bob refuses to say which of his three sons is his favourite, but says that his years at UC were spent trying to keep up with Roger Robinson and preparing for the club’s biggest annual event, the Takahe to Akaroa relay. 

Bob also remembers the famous hosted runs, when the runners would gather at the house of a club member or patron, run like mad for one or two hours, and then share in a long and opulent feast. The club runs were still a feature of the club when Daniel joined. Undergraduate runners, Daniel recalls, would schedule their appetites and budgets around the hosted runs, starving themselves for days in advance. 

UC has moved away from its roots as a university-based club, with Canterbury students now a minority of its members. The hosted runs have died out as student membership has dropped, and the club now has only a loose affiliation with the university. Increasingly, training and other club activities are arranged to fit around the working day rather than a student schedule. A difference between UC and Scottish, Ariana notes, is that UC presently does not have a physical base or a practice of getting the whole club together for training runs.

Much of UC’s attention over recent years has turned to building its junior section. The club regularly has 150 juniors competing in athletics over the summer. There are weekly club nights for juniors, and the club supports several of its student members by paying them to work as coaches for the children.

As many other clubs have found, however, activity at the junior level does not translate into numbers at the senior level. Few of UC’s juniors continue with the club. While the junior section is run by a capable group of parents, there is now no overall club committee, with administrative duties falling on a small number of older members. 

The club continues to be affected by the 2011 earthquake. Several of the club’s best runners have left, and fewer new runners have been moving to Christchurch. UC has also lost its track, with the university using all available field space for prefab classrooms. With the prefabs due for removal in late 2018, the club is doing its best to ensure that the track is restored.

Most sadly, the earthquake took the life of Brian Taylor. Brian was Rowan’s coach at the time of his death, and a UC life member. He is remembered as one of the club’s most energetic and successful coaches, and one of its most popular characters.

As president, Daniel takes a long-term view of the club’s future. He sees the membership moving through cycles, and is hopeful that the senior men’s team, presently small, will grow again in coming years. He takes pleasure in the success of UC athletes even as they move on to other cities and clubs, noting his special thrill at seeing Malcolm Hodge break through for a road relays title with Scottish this year.

UC faces many of the same challenges as other New Zealand clubs in the changing world of competitive running. Athletics New Zealand and centre races are increasingly crowded out by privately run events. Even the elite runners in Canterbury are regularly spread across park runs and other races, rather than gathering to chase fast times and championships. Like many others, Daniel is keen to see ANZ and the centres adopt a greater range of membership options. The survival of the club structure depends on making it more accessible to the wider running community.

In the short term, however, there is another season to prepare for. Daniel and Ariana are confident that the UC senior women will go from strength to strength, and Daniel warns us that UC also has a talented masters women’s team ready to emerge. With National Road Relays returning to the local Takahe-Akaroa course, the club has a perfect opportunity to place more teams on the starting line and send its maroon and gold colours back to the podium.