The 1978 Wellington Centre 20 km Race Walk Championship

David Lonsdale

I started race walking late in life. I was aged 35, it was 1974, and I only did it to gain points for the Scottish club team in the Wellington Centre track league. Peter Maunder and I were organising the team and Scottish did well enough to win the Centre league. Unfortunately, we had no race walkers, so Peter and I stepped up and competed over 3000m, and in the local competition we were first and second in modest times of about 16 or 17 minutes. We continued for a few years and eventually I started training for walking. I was guided by John Cook of Titahi Bay who, in addition to being a leading field events coach, was an internationally ranked race walk judge.

For me, the highlight of the summer was always the Centre track championships. My job required me to organize and travel to conferences around New Zealand on every weekend in March, and as a result, even if I qualified to enter the New Zealand championships, my work commitments prohibited my competing. However, in the summer of 1977/78 I had a good fellow walker, the late Robert Bennett, to train and compete with, and as a result our times reduced steadily that summer. Our times were good for masters’ ages, but still quite a few minutes off the times being set in Auckland by walkers like Graham Seatter, who is currently an Athletics New Zealand Chief Selector.

In 1978 the race walk distances were 5000 m and 20km, walked on consecutive days, Saturday and Sunday. Today the distances are 3000 m and 10,000m, walked a week apart. I had decided that I wanted to break two hours for the 20km road walk and I trained harder than ever. (Well, to be honest, I actually trained consistently for walking the first time!) These days, the 20km race is conducted on a one- or two-kilometer lap, but back then it was out and back on the road from Newtown Park, with the judges travelling along in their cars to keep a watch over us. Weekend shopping had not been introduced in 1978, so the roads were quiet apart from people going to and from church.

On 11th February 1978, a hot Saturday, I won the 5000 m track race from Robert in 26:51.6. David Sim of the Olympic Club won the Junior 3000 m championship in 14:55.3, which was then a Centre record. Then, on what turned out to be a stinking hot Sunday, Robert and I set off at 8.30 am to cover 20 km, accompanied by David Sim, Keith Olsthoorn and Murray Scanlon, who were racing the Junior 10 km. We started with a lap of Newtown Park, went out the gate by the zoo and down past the hospital and Basin Reserve, and moved onto Oriental Parade. David Sim and I had agreed to work together, and we soon dropped the others. Somewhere along Oriental Parade was the 5km point, where David turned and left me to walk alone down Evans Bay. David returned strongly to win the 10 km in 56:40.

Hastings, 1975 Easter Highland Games incorporating the New Zealand Inter Club finals

Both judges allocated to follow me, John Cook and Bob Spence, knew of my aim to break two hours. These days judges must not communicate with competitors, but they both gave me time checks as I went out to Cobham Drive. The 10km turn point was somewhere past the poles with wind cones on them, and there was just a paint mark on the pavement, as red traffic cones had not even been invented then. The temperature was rising, and I really needed a drink, but in those days we didn’t get water supplied during races, so I just turned my mind to other things as I walked on. The song “Lullaby of Broadway” has been a favourite song of mine and singing it to myself over and over at a high tempo diverted my mind from water to a fast cadence walk.

As I walked past the hospital going up the hill back to Newtown Park, John Cook told me that I was on target to break two hours, but I needed to work a bit harder. The turn by the zoo into the Newtown car park, into the gate and onto the track was a relief. David and the junior walkers were very supportive, but no one had a drink ready for me as I crossed the line just under my target in 1 hour, 59 Minutes, 25 seconds. So instead of stopping, I kept walking around the track to the water jump, which was full to the brim. I just sat in it for about 30 minutes to re-hydrate. I think the water steamed a little as I sank up to my chin in the clean cool water.

Walkers go faster these days. Having a rest gap between races must help, and they have much better shoes. The shoes I wore were Tigers, now Asics, which only had a thin sole, no padding, canvas uppers and no heel cup. I had a thin rubber heel sole added for me by the cobbler. I walked faster later over 20 km and half marathons in bigger fields, but those races were not judged, so they did not produce the happy memory of breaking two hours for the first time.

11 February 1978, when David won the Wellington 5,000 m walk champs in 26:56.5