Nigel Roberts

Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Who is the oldest runner of them all?

During the 2017 and 2018 harrier seasons, I think it was correct to say that I was the oldest member of the Wellington Scottish Athletics Club who was still running. At least that’s what some of us thought when we joked about the matter during changing-room banter sessions. I was 73 and 74 years old during those two winters, while Bob Stephens – a massive six months younger than me – was a mere 72 and 73 years old.

It was clear to all those who heard us discuss the topic, however, that Bob was anxious to claim the title. I guess Bob probably reasoned that the oldest-runner crown would sit more firmly atop his luxurious white mane than on my balding pate. Well, 2019 has seen me concede the title of oldest runner of them all to Bob (or to anyone else who, unbeknownst to us, is even older than Bob Stephens – but one would have to be pretty old to be even older than Bob).

Running-wise, the year began well for me. To avoid the summer’s heat in January, I regularly ran along the cool, shaded trails in Otari / Wilton’s Bush, where I not infrequently saw Matyas James and Glen Wallis. It’s frightening to learn that Glen is now an M55 runner. Surely that’s a misprint, because I remember many a fine tussle racing – it seems like only yesterday – against Glen’s father, who was a stalwart of Wainuiomata Harriers.

Anyway, I was really enjoying my early 2019 running, and all was going to plan. In February, however, things took a turn for the worse (which is the type of turn you don’t want to take in a race). I had to have a BCC cut out from the back of my right shoulder. (No, BCC doesn’t mean I had a blind copy of an email appended to my body; BCC is the medical abbreviation for a basal cell carcinoma.) A period of enforced rest-from-running was prescribed to ensure the stitches didn’t come out and the incision didn’t tear. 

The following month I resumed running. It was still not too late to prepare for the 2019 harrier season, I told myself and secretly harboured the fantasy of burgling a race or two. Dream on! March wasn’t even half-way through when an 8-km run turned into an 8-km hobble. Worryingly, the cause of the trouble was my right leg, which I’d broken rather badly in a climbing accident five years ago (though nothing like as badly as Don Stevens broke his leg: on a scale of 1 to 10, Don was a nine compared with my measly five). My doctor sent me off for an x-ray, which interestingly was still covered by ACC. Nothing could be found, and physiotherapy didn’t help much either.

In mid-April I gingerly started running again – but, suspecting the pain in my right leg could possibly have been the result of a stress-fracture, I decided to run only a grass. Fortunately, I live just a kilometre or so away from Western Park (the sports fields that sit alongside Karori cemetery and Otari / Wilton’s Bush). For the next three months, I used to walk from home to the park’s northern-most field, do my stretching exercises there, and then run 12 times round the field. I’d have lost count of the number of laps I was running if it weren’t for the fact that I ran three times round the field in one direction, then turned and ran three circuits in the opposite direction, before repeating the process. (Clearly, when I run I can count to three, but not to 12.)

I’d estimated that 12 laps of the field was 8 kilometres. In late-June, Stephen Meredith, one of my brothers-in-law, came to Wellington to run the Wellington marathon in an attempt to complete his quest to run a marathon in all eight Australian states and territories, as well as in New Zealand. Not only did he complete his quest, but he also won the M70 division of the marathon. As befits such a classy runner, Stephen has one of those fancy runner’s watches with GPS and Lord-knows-what-else on it – a far cry from my little $28 Casio. Stephen asked me how long each of my Western Park circuits was. Well, I said, given that I think twelve laps equals eight kilometres, each circuit must be about 667 metres. He volunteered to use his expensive Garmin to check the distance. He did – and (as George Bush Jnr. would have said) I’d grossly misunderestimated the distance. Stephen’s watch showed it was 670 metres. This meant that my park runs weren’t a measly eight kilometres: they were, in fact, a humungous 8.04 kms.

Touch wood, cross fingers, etc., I am relieved to say I’ve not yet incurred any other injuries. I am now back running on asphalt and footpaths – but I’m not in Wellington. I’m currently overseas and won’t be home prior to the end of the 2019 harrier season. This means that I won’t have run – and that I won’t be running – with Scottish at all this year. Thus it’s official: Bob is the oldest runner of them all.

But be warned, Bob (or any other young whippersnappers who fancy themselves as pretenders to the throne). I intend to be back at the club next year to reclaim my crown.

Thanks to the wonders of Garmin technology, we now know that twelve times round the perimeter of this double rugby field is 8,040 metres.