Aotearoa New Zealand is a nation of runners with a proud heritage dating back to the 1800s. For the first time, the story of our athletes’ achievements and their inspiring legacy is told in The Kiwi Runners’ Family Tree: Volume One 1800s-1999.
The book records and showcases the full gamut of the Kiwi running experience – from our sprinters, middle-distance, long-distance and marathon runners, to our hurdlers and steeplechasers, race walkers, Para athletes, mountain runners, ultra-distance and adventure runners.
We ask author and lifelong runner Dreydon Sobanja ten quick questions about the project.
What inspired you to research and write New Zealand’s running history?
My vision for the book started small. I had planned on highlighting just the superstars of Kiwi running to inspire kids to dream beyond those stars. However, the more research I did, the more I realised that many books like that had already been written, but I also noticed no one else had taken on a complete history of New Zealand running. The spark of inspiration to expand my research came when I read Arthur Lydiard’s quote ‘Give me 100 athletes and I’ll give you 100 champions’. Initially, the task seemed overwhelming, but I took the approach I’ve taken to a number of endurance events and ‘ate the elephant’ one bite at a time.
How long did it take you to pull it all together?
My initial vision for the book started over five years ago, but after shelving the idea as unworkable I typed up my research in what I recall was a Word document and destroyed my handwritten notes. Just over two years ago I decided I should write the book, so it was suitable for both adults and children, but I could not find the Word document and started my research all over again. When I typed some of that up, I thought it would be better in a spreadsheet. The name I saved it as turned out to be one I had used for my past research. Basically, I hadn’t recalled that I had transcribed all of my prior notes into a spreadsheet. The day was saved, but it was still another two years of researching, writing, publishing and promoting in my spare time.
What challenges did you encounter along the way?
Lockdown presented a lot of unexpected challenges, including the temporary loss of Creative NZ funding. However, a positive attitude by the whole team I work with kept us on track. But I think the biggest challenge was finding reliable sources of information. Although the likes of Wikipedia might present apparently easily accessible statistics and facts, that information has to be corroborated back to the source and the authenticity of that source evaluated. The best way to overcome this was to talk to those that were there, wherever possible. Athletes and coaches such as Arch Jelley, Allison Roe, Lisa Tamati, Millie Sampson, Heather Matthews, Ian Studd, Bevan Smith, Trish Hill and Cristeen Smith, all helped me get closer to the truth. However, perception and interpretation can still play a part in some of the stories.
Without playing favourites, which athletes impressed you the most?
I am perfectly comfortable playing favourites on this question. I met with 87-year-old Mille Sampson just before our country got locked down. I had to meet with her on one of her days off because she’s still working part-time. I knew very little about her before we chatted, but by the end of the interview I understood exactly why Lorraine Moller called her a pioneer and why Heather Matthews had put me in contact with her. Millie was the first Kiwi woman to run under 5 minutes for the mile, which is significant but never talked about. Millie also thought nothing of being dragged out of bed to run her first marathon after a night of ‘celebrating’. I also loved the fact that she suggested we elbow bump when I left.
What surprised you the most when researching and talking to runners and their coaches?
Mainly their approachability and their attitude to life. Most athletes and coaches I contacted were more than willing to answer questions and have conversations, and at least half wanted to meet in person. They were more than welcoming, often with a meal or snack and a cup of tea. Although all of their stories were different, they all seemed to share the same traits and disciplines. When you talk to people in their 80s and 90s who are able to recall moments in detail that occurred over half a century ago, it makes it hard to argue the benefits of a physically healthy lifestyle and a trained mental attitude.
How has running changed over the years?
That’s a question you will get as many answers to as there are experts. I don’t consider myself an expert, but you often hear them talk about the two golden ages of New Zealand running. They refer to our success on the track in the 1960s with the likes of Snell, Halberg and Chamberlain and then in the 1970s/80s with Walker, Moller, Audain, Roe, Dixon and Quax. Most believe the third golden age hasn’t arrived, but I believe it has come and gone and we could be about to see the fourth. During the 1990s and into the current millennium, Kiwis have expanded into mountain running with a six-time world champion and ultramarathon and adventure running with worldwide recognisable names like Max Telford, Sandy Barwick, Kym McConnell and Lisa Tamati. Without wishing to jinx them, I think the fourth golden age will be provided by our Para athletes, who are a group of young and very talented track runners including William Steadman, Keegan Pitcher and Dani Aitchison. I just hope those in high places are brave enough to see it in this way, within time.
Which agencies have supported your project?
You could almost call Arch Jelley an agency within himself. He has provided me with an abundance of information, support and advice. But as far as organisations go, I can’t look past Paralympics New Zealand. I have been corresponding with the team there for about two years and our paths have been joined due to the ‘Celebration Project’ they have been undertaking to document and honour their past athletes. They went into overdrive on that project during lockdown and thanks to a Zoom conversation we started forming a more formal relationship, one whereby I was able to add even more to their athletes’ stories and contribute to their organisation from the sale of each book. It is a classic win-win.
Who do you hope to reach and inspire with your book and what is your dream for The Kiwi Runners’ Family Tree?
I like to think it will inspire adults as much as it does children who are old enough to understand the content – from about the age of ten, I reckon. I’ve written the sort of book I would want to read. If I picked it up, I would browse through it first, taking in all of the photos and getting an idea of the chapters and the structure; then, when I had the time, I’d start reading the Foreword and work my way through mini-biography by mini-biography, chapter by chapter. I think there is a story or two in there for everyone – the varied upbringings of the athletes, the different challenges they faced and overcame and the myriad of running disciplines available should provide wide appeal to the general public. It would be nice to think that one of our future champions will read the book and be inspired to take action that leads to their eventual success. Inspiring Kiwis to get out there and just run should be enough, but I ultimately hope it inspires the next generation of runners and even more generations beyond that. I have attempted to help them understand the weight of history and knowledge that can drive them forward toward their dreams.
You had a dream about wearing the Silver Fern. How did you make that happen?
I always enjoyed running when I was at school and dreamed of wearing the Silver Fern, but as I got older those dreams got buried in a dark room in my mind, along with my negative life experiences. By my late thirties, I had slipped into a deep depression fuelled by working long hours, ignoring my issues, alcohol and anxiety. But about ten years ago I hit rock bottom before I managed to start bouncing back. I used endurance-based physical exercise, specifically triathlon, as my vehicle to recover. It took me a few years to qualify, but I ended up competing at the Triathlon Age Group World Championships in 2015 in Edmonton, Canada and crossed the finish line wearing the Silver Fern. I’m now dreaming about becoming an age-group triathlon world champion by 2055. I don’t mind playing the long game, and there are still people that compete in the 80s.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud that I stayed the course and published the book despite the many obstacles, hurdles and roadblocks along the way. But it is important to note that I haven’t done it on my own. I have a great professional team around me and partnerships with other organisations. Between them all, they give me their advice, experience and energy, which combined to ensure the end product is of high quality.