Withers run tests new year fitness

Megan Graham and George Varney, Marlborough’s running royalty. Photo: Peter Jones.

The 2020 King and Queen of the Withers were crowned in blazing sunshine at the foot of the Wither Hills on Saturday morning.

The popular post-festive season event, raced over 10km in the iconic hills to the south of Blenheim, saw a first-time King crowned and a familiar figure returned as Queen.

George Varney took out the King of the Withers in a very smart time of 41 minutes 37 seconds, breaking the junior men’s record of 44:20 set by Varney in 2018. It was the first overall title for the 18-year-old. Julius Stromberg came in second overall, nine seconds back, with Fergus Greer third.

Meanwhile, Megan Graham claimed her eighth Queen of the Withers crown, plus the open women’s grade, in 45:35, just over two minutes outside Nikita Watkins’ course record time of 43.11 set in 2018. Caitlin Fielder was second in 47.06. Julia Anderson was third in 49.29.

The field set off under slightly overcast skies but, to the runners’ dismay, the clouds cleared away soon after the starting gun and the temperature rose rapidly as they pounded around the demanding circuit.

Waihopai Valley farmer Richard Dawkins leads the field soon after the starting gun. Photo: Peter Jones.
Waihopai Valley farmer Richard Dawkins leads the field soon after the starting gun. Photo: Peter Jones.

Varney said “it got quite warm, quite quickly, which I didn’t expect”.

“It was a good challenge … Julius [Stromberg], who got second, gave me a really good push up the top and I managed to get away from him on the downhill, but it’s quite a tough race isn’t it?”

Varney hit the lead around the twin water tanks on the descent and was never headed, despite having to stop and throw up in the last kilometre.

Happily, he had forged a 200m lead and managed to maintain his momentum and claim the victory.

“I was a bit worried,” he explained, “because I could see him coming, so I managed to throw up on the run. I felt much better afterwards.”

The former Marlborough Boys’ College standout is on his way to Massey University in 2020, studying veterinary science, but has promised to come back and try to defend his title. He will continue to focus on track events after having plenty of success over middle distance locally and nationally.

Graham also had some time to spare at the finish line as she cruised to the women’s title, but said the race was as tough as usual.

“I was a bit worried today, [second-placed] Caitlin Fielder was out in front at the start, until the hills came. She was smoking it and I thought ‘Oh, no, competition’ … it was good though, made me run harder.

“I was running with Nick Rayner at that stage and he said, ‘what are you doing back here’ and I told him I was just pacing myself, I’ll be right.”

And she was, passing Fielder, an ultra-distance runner based in Spain, on the first hill and staying in front from then on.

“I didn’t have to stop as much this year,” she added, “a bit more recovery after having [baby] Ameika I think, I’ve been doing some training when I can, a bit of buggy-running, resistance training really.

“It’s hard work pushing Ameika so when I’m running by myself I feel pretty free.”

Although numbers were slightly down across the three grades [run, hybrid, walk] this year the quality of participants was high.

MGC middle distance athlete Lucy Harman won the junior women’s title in 54:59, which was outside the record time of 50:21 set by Graham in 2010.

The open men’s title was claimed by Stromberg, who came home in 41:46, not far off the record of 40:33 set by Daniel Hopata in 2007.

Ian Anderson won the veteran men’s title, finishing in 44:27, well outside the mark of 38:55 set by former Olympian Phil Costley in 2012, which stands as a record for all grades.

The veteran women’s grade was taken out by Julia Anderson in 49:29, outside the record of 47:41 set by Suzie Aviss in 2006.

Larry Smith won the male walkers title and the overall crown, finishing in 1:28:35. The record of 58:35 was set by Barry Neal in 2008.

Wanda Smith won the female walkers crown in 1:29:57, the record being 1:14:10 set by Barbara McGuire in 2008.

The hybrid event was won by Paul O’Shea in 1:00:46, with Bella Rayner second in 1:04:16.

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