Remembering a 20-mile cross country race

Once upon a time, one of the most prestigious races in Wellington was a 20-mile cross-country race. Alan Stevens has scoured his memory and the club archives to give us an account of the life and death of the Gold Cup. 

The Gold Cup, otherwise known as “the 20 mile”, was a classic endurance cross country race organised by the Olympic Harrier Club. It was based at Trentham Racecourse and was four laps of 5 miles, starting in front of the main stands, around and out the back across the muddy farmland, fences & gates included, over a small spur, into the (now closed) Wallaceville Research Centre land, out onto Ward Street, south down Miro & Ararino Streets, back across the Camp Road railway crossing, into the rear of the racecourse to finish in front of the stands.

The race offered some unique challenges. With two rail crossings each lap, trains could be a problem. Also, up to the 1960s, NZAAA (now AthNZ) required each runner to have a medical certificate of fitness!

The (genuine!) Gold Cup was for the 5-man teams’ race. The individual winner was awarded the Phipson Trophy: a large glass enclosed figure of a runner, now held in the Olympic clubrooms.

The race was first held in 1931 and was won by my dad, Alf Stevens. He was one of the leading runners of the 1930s and ran the first three laps like a normal cross country race, establishing a good lead. Inevitably during the last lap “the wheels started to fall off”. During the final circuit around the heavy racecourse he had to walk alongside the running rail, finishing in 2hrs 19min! Over eight years he had three wins, two seconds, and two thirds.

In subsequent years many famous names competed, including Arthur Lydiard, Murray Halberg, Jeff Julian, and Arch Jelley. In 1957, Ray Puckett beat Merv Hellier by 2 seconds in a record 1 hour 57 minutes.

My early memories were going with Dad to watch. Few trained seriously for that distance, and many withdrew. There were dramas at the finish. In the Leger Stand the wide bar-tops had prostrate athletes being revived with hot tea – often in the dark.

In one famous incident, our then Club Captain, Colin Bruce, a Teacher at Rongotai College, was walking home with a clubmate along Kent Terrace after the race. Both were feeling bad after their heavy 20 miler, and Colin’s mate was suddenly violently ill – and just then a tram went past with college boys on board. This was in the days of 6 o’clock closing and there were many drunks in the street. Colin disowned him and walked off!

I had some memorable runs in the event. In 1966, Grant Wheeler and I were leading after three miles and wondered who the guy was behind us. We paused and introduced ourselves to the then-unknown Jack Foster. Grant and I had a ding-dong battle – he won, and Jack was fourth. Jack came back the next year for the first of his wins and ultimately set an incredible record of 1hr 46 min in a very wet, muddy year. In later years Scottish’s Steve Hunt won the race a record seven times.

Scottish also used the race for a handicap competition, for the Murphy Cup. It was won in 1974 by John Hines. Our history records that his smile was so large you could see his teeth through his beard!

Around 1970, General Motors built a huge plant at the back of the site of the race. That cut off the hill spur, and Alexander Road was put through. Then Wallaceville Research wound down, the Camp Road crossing was closed, the Racing Club changed their dates, and many more marathons and distance events came into being in the Wellington area. Numbers fell, and Olympic discontinued the event in 1997. The race had served its time but it delivered many fond memories. In New Zealand today, there is still nothing quite like it.

Photos from the National Library. The main photo shows runners competing in the annual Gold Cup 20-mile cross country harrier race, Trentham, Upper Hutt, Wellington, Saturday, 2 October 1965. From left: G Wheeler (Scottish Harriers), Richard Weston (Napier Harriers), A Stevens (Scottish Harriers). All photos are from the Evening Post in 1965 or 1966.

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