Rountree tackles Mountain Running Championships
‘Queen of the Mt’ hopes for regal showing at worlds
Helen Rountree is in action for New Zealand at the annual World Mountain Running Championships held in Krynica-Zdroj, Poland on Monday. Steve Landells finds out more about her rising profile in the gruelling endurance discipline.
‘I was quite disgusted with the whole thing.’ was Helen Rountree’s blunt assessment of her mountain running debut. It was not like the experience had gone terribly badly. The Hamilton-based athlete had impressed, finishing third at the 2012 New Zealand Championships. It was just the pain she felt when ascending Mt Campbell (near Moteuka) did not leave her with the most fond memories.
“It was horrible and I said never again,” says Helen, an Emergency Department nurse. “It was a bit like having a baby or so I’m told (Helen in childless), but like women who’ve had children they forget the pain otherwise they wouldn’t have another child.”
The pain was also masked by another huge incentive. Her performance levels had so impressed selectors she was picked for the New Zealand team for the World Mountain Running Championships at Val Comonica in the Italian Alps.
After some contemplation, the pain she experienced at her maiden mountain running race quickly receded in her mind and she leapt at the chance to represent her country.
There competing for New Zealand for the first time, Helen performed solidly, placing 47th and after enjoying a more positive second mountain experience she has since thrown herself wholeheartedly into the discipline. Earlier this year in Wellington her rising status in this popular tranche of the sport was rewarded when she was crowned New Zealand Mountain Running champion and she is now on the verge of her second World Championship appearance.
All of which has represented a meteoric rise for a former schoolgirl 800m athlete, who only returned seriously to the sport five years ago.
“I did okay as a runner at school but then spent a lot of years concentrating on playing netball. I then spent five years in and out of Australia in places from Alice Springs to Cairns building up my nursing career.”
Running throughout this time to aid basic fitness, it was only when she returned to New Zealand in her late-twenties did she take the plunge back into competitive running again joining the Hamilton City Hawks. It has not been a decision she has regretted.
“Running on my own was quite lonely and I really missed the social side,” she explains. “The club scene at the Hawks was so much fun and so cool and that is what appealed to me most.”
Returning to competition, Helen performed solidly on the road. A 36-minute 10km runner and 1:18 half- marathoner at her best she consistently performed to a high level on the domestic road running scene.
However, interestingly, the race she enjoyed the greatest success was the annual Boxing Day ‘Queen of the Mount’ race up Mt Maunganui (Note, there is a King of the Mount race, too) A regular winner of the race up the testing climb gave a clear indication as to her climbing ability. She became curious of the thought of mountain running.
“I feel naturally stronger on the hills,” explains Helen, 34. “Since I started on the roads I haven’t got that much faster. I just think running uphill is my strength.”
Adapting her training to specialise in mountain running under the coaching of Don Willoughby – former coach to New Zealand distance running internationals Jake and Zane Robertson - over the past year or so Helen has racked up the miles in her car to escape the plains of her home city of Hamilton to drive out to Mt Te Aroha and her favourite training venue hill Mt Maunganui.
To make the ascent up the iconic hill at the popular beach resort even tougher, Helen often climbs up, for a certain distance before descending some way back down the hill before climbing up again.
Not that every walker up the hill is fully aware of Helen’s credentials.
“Some people sometimes see me run up the hill and then come back down the hill and comment, ‘it’s okay, one day you’ll be able to climb to the top of the hill,’” she says laughing at the thought of them being unaware of her status as an international mountain runner.
With the benefit of an extra 12 months training since the 2012 World Mountain Championships event, Helen believes she is in a stronger position to capitalise on the latest edition on Monday (New Zealand time).
The format of the championships alternate each year between a straight uphill event (as in 2012) to this year being a race which combines up and down hill elements and this, the Hamilton runner insists, will work in her favour.
“This year starts with a slight uphill followed by a downhill stretch, uphill then a downhill and ends uphill,” adds Helen of the 9.08km senior women’s course which includes 561m of elevation and 551m of descent. “Providing it is semi-runnable downhill I think that will be good for me.”
So what are her expectations for the event in Poland?
“It is really hard to know the standard of opposition I will face, but to finish in the 20s would be nice, adds Helen,” who finished fourth in her most recent mountain running outing in Merano, Italy last weekend. “To finish top 20 would be amazing, but we’ll just have to see how it goes.”
New Zealand Team to contest World Champs
Senior Men: Glenn Hughes, Dougan Butler, Tane Cambridge
Senior Women: Helen Rountree, Marjolein Cook
Junior Men: Thomas Anderson, Jake Jackson, Alister Meffan