The single biggest technological change for runners is under our feet. It’s bitumen.
Runners will debate for long hours about the best surface to run on to prevent injuries. But there is little doubt that the widespread availability of tar sealed streets (and the footpaths that run alongside them) has made running more accessible for many more people.
But sealed asphalt and bitumen roads are relatively new to New Zealand. Until World War 2 many New Zealand roads were unsealed.
A century ago, Te Ara notes, city streets were dusty in summer and muddy in winter.
“At first wooden blocks were used to pave some busy streets in Auckland and Wellington. The process of sealing roads with tar was available by 1900. City streets were the first to be sealed. Dunedin had a machine which tarred streets by 1908. Sealing was very expensive and it was beyond the reach of most local authorities.”
Contractor Magazine‘s short history of roads says that apart from the dirt roads in towns, most travellers went via horse-drawn wagon along beaches. Or via canoe or paddle steamer up rivers such as the Waikato and Wanganui, or via tracks Māori built.
“As ‘roads’ were slowly established, most were nothing more than widened bridle tracks and after heavy rain were subject to turning into muddy, rutted quagmires making travel extremely difficult. As time progressed, crushed stones and shells were spread as a top layer which helped to minimise wagons and carriages getting bogged down.”
It was not until motorcars arrived in the country in the 1910s that road surfaces gradually improved. And where motorcars went runners could follow. No longer would every run resemble Grenada North’s infamous cross country course.
Te Ara notes that by 1929 there were only about 3,000 kilometres of sealed road in the country. That’s less than 3 percent of the country’s road network.
“In 1921 half of the country’s roads were still just rough tracks. Unsealed roads, even those that were metalled, could turn to mud.”
“Sealing New Zealand’s road network continued at a gradual pace until the 1950s and 1960s, when it accelerated.”
It’s worth noting that the 1950s and 1960s mark the start of the country’s and the world’s first global running boom, when running became a sport for the masses. Without the ubiquity of roads, we could not have a proliferation of marathons, half-marathons, local 5kms races, Round the Bays style mass participation events – and, most importantly we would not have ‘jogging’ as popularised by Arthur Lydiard and Bill Bowerman.
Two or three generations on, we live in a society where it is hard to imagine a world without long-lasting durable roads going from every doorstep to every other point in the city, or country. We think of running on a smooth, unsealed road as off-road running. Runners who don’t run on roads celebrate their alternative choice and give themselves the name “trail runners”. Day-to-day runners rely so thoroughly on the quality of roads that most measure their training in distance rather than time.
But, it is possible that we live at the end of an era. Bitumen is a low-grade crude oil product. Its production and use has many negative environmental impacts including on climate change, water quality and air quality. Many scientists, engineers and roading contractors are looking at new, more sustainable ways to build roads and footpaths. These could include recycled plastics and bio-bitumen products. The age of the petrol car may be coming to an end. As we explore new forms of transport and the surfaces that we transport upon, runners will continue to follow behind, adapting.
- Road to Mount Cook by Bernard Spragg on Flickr
- Road construction using horses and a steam roller. Ref: 1/1-004744-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22848759
- Athletics coach Arthur Lydiard provides advice to joggers in Anderson Park, Wellington. Photograph taken 17 February 1975 by an unidentified Evening Post staff photographer. The Dominion Post Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library. Caption – Original Evening Post caption reads “Some of Wellington’s hardy band of lunchtime joggers receive a tip on hamstring injuries from one who knows – top athletics coach Arthur Lydiard – today. Mr Lydiard made the trip from Auckland to join joggers on their jaunt at Anderson Park. Even today’s rainy weather did not prevent a muster of keep-fit addicts from reporting for a run. About 50 Wellingtonians from all walks of life jog at the park each day.”