Simon Keller

The 2018 club season begins

Every week of the year sees Wellington Scottish runners competing somewhere in the world, over distances from the shortest track races to the longest ultra-marathons. There is still something special, though, about the winter cross-country and roads seasons, when we face up as a club against our rivals from around Wellington and New Zealand.

The season begins in less than two weeks, on 28 April, with the Shaw Baton Relay at Battle Hill Park. While only 2km long, each lap at the Shaw Baton features water crossings, jumps, and a hill. One of the most significant and venerable relay races in New Zealand, the Shaw Baton is set on bucolic farmland. The course is spectator-friendly and rewards participation and camaraderie as much as performance.

The Shaw Baton will bring the greater 2018 Scottish team together for the first time. It will also give us our first glance at the season to come. We will see what form everyone is in and what clubs might have some exciting new signings.

Beginning this year, the Shaw Baton will feature relay teams of four in the men’s categories, rather than the traditional six. The change can be expected to favour clubs with smaller adult sections. If Victoria University can get its top four runners to the line in the Senior Men’s category, then it may find itself in medal contention.

At last year’s Shaw Baton, Wellington Harriers presented a stand-out team in the Senior Men’s race and managed to break Scottish’s long run of victories.

A fortnight after the Shaw Baton is the University Relays in Paekakariki. Run over 4km laps in the grassy sand dunes of Queen Elizabeth Park, it offers the prettiest scenery and the friendliest atmosphere of the year – as well as the most attractive prizes.

From a Scottish perspective, much of the excitement of last year’s University Relays came from the Senior Men and their emphatic response to their defeat at the Shaw Baton. In a powerful display of the club’s depth and commitment, Scottish’s Senior Men’s teams took first, second, and third.

Our competition against other Wellington-region clubs continues with three classic individual cross country races: the Vosseler, the Dorne Cup, and the Wellington Cross Country Championships. Then comes the Wellington roads season, featuring in close succession the Bays Relay and the Wellington Road Racing Championships.

Last season saw a welcome resurgence in numbers and activity among the Scottish Women’s Senior and Masters teams. The highlight of the season was the Senior Women’s memorable victory in the Bays Relay.

The women’s section is poised to take another big step forward in 2018. There are many new members, and the team will be buoyed by the return to Wellington of one of our greatest runners and club stalwarts, Nicole Mitchell.

There has been much discussion about the women’s races at the Vosseler and the Dorne, where men and women have traditionally run different distances. Athletics Wellington and the organising clubs went through a consultation process and have decided that for this year, the distances will remain unchanged. The championship race at the Vosseler will be the 5km, with women permitted (permitted!) to run in the 10km if they prefer. Women’s races at the Dorne will still be over 6km, compared with the men’s 8km.

Perhaps the most absorbing season-long contest of 2017 was in the Men’s 50s grade, as the highly combative men of Scottish and WHAC fought a see-sawing battle that went all the way from Battle Hill Park to the roads of Rotorua. With some fresh talent graduating from the M40s this year, the Scottish M50s will hit the season with a potent mix of youthful optimism and ruthless strategic planning.

There is a major change at the men’s masters level for this Wellington season. The first men’s masters category is now 35-49-year-olds instead of 40-49. In recent years, Olympic Harriers has had a classy group of 40-49-year-old runners, but has not had the numbers to challenge the deeper WHAC and Scottish teams. With the ability to draw in some younger runners, Olympic may re-emerge as a force in this grade.

It will be interesting to see what happens to the many very fast 35-39-year-old male runners who suddenly find themselves classified as veterans. For Scottish, runners like Nick Horspool, Rowan Hooper, and Dougal Thorburn have featured regularly in our senior A relay teams, but are now eligible to run in the 35-49 category. All clubs will need to balance the runners’ preferences and tactical considerations in deciding how to select their senior and 35-49 men’s relay teams.

As was the case last year, both the Wellington Cross Country and the Wellington Roads Championships will have 5km and 10km options for all adult grades. Based on participation numbers from last year, the 10km will be the championship distance for all categories, apart from the W50s, W60s, W70s, M60s, and M70s. 

For the four interclub individual races – the Vosseler and Dorne and the two Wellington championship races – this season sees a change in the scoring method for the men’s and women’s open team categories. A club’s open team will now be determined by the order in which runners cross the line, whether those runners are registered as seniors or masters. There will also be team competitions for the various masters grades, and a single runner can score in both the open and a masters grade.

This change will take some getting used to, but it will make the competition for team trophies a little less complicated. It will allow us to avoid the headaches of earlier years, when the team placings came down to whether certain runners were officially entered as seniors or masters.

(Not all complication is avoided, however. It is still possible to elect to run in a “higher” grade – a master or a junior can run as a senior – and hence be eligible for individual medals in that higher grade. If you are a master who gives notice that you want to run as a senior, however, then you cannot score for your masters team.)

If all those details leave you yearning for something fun and familiar, then you will find it in the biggest race of the year: the New Zealand Road Relays. This is the one event at which we compete as a club against other clubs from all over New Zealand, and it is New Zealand’s biggest celebration of both elite running and participation. In 2018, it returns to the fabled Christchurch-Akaroa course.

That means that there will be eight places in each team, rather the seven we have had in the last two years. And it means that there are plenty of long and undulating relay legs to assign. The course will play to Scottish’s strengths: our depth, and our great supply of long-distance specialists.

Last year’s relays in Rotorua brought us a mix of success and drama and near misses. Victories to the Men’s Seniors and Men’s 40s took us oh-so-close to winning the overall New Zealand club title.

Scottish is building in 2018. With another exciting season of club racing to come, the prospect of a solid relay race from Christchurch to Akaroa gives us all something to get us through the winter.