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Doctor’s marathon shift ends in victory

In the battle for New Zealand marathon supremacy on Rotorua's imposing but infamous round-the-lake run, a part-time athlete and full-time doctor prevails. Suzanne McFadden reports.  

Last week, Dr Alice Mason worked the night shift at Waikato Hospital. She’d get home to Cambridge around 8am, sleep till lunchtime and “try to hobble through" a run. Then she‘d steal another nap before starting work again in the evening.

On Saturday, Mason had re-calibrated her body clock, got up at dawn and won the women’s race in the Rotorua marathon. With that, she retained her national marathon title.

Balancing a double act as a doctor and an athlete is something Mason takes in her quick stride. “It does take some manoeuvring,” the 30-year-old says. “It’s about trying to sleep as much as you can, I guess. Your body gets used to it, just like travelling.”

Another medical professional took the marathon world by storm a fortnight ago. Arizona nurse anaesthetist Sarah Sellers finished second in the Boston Marathon in only her second marathon attempt. As she lined up in one of the world’s elite races, no one knew who Sellers was; she has no sponsors, no agents, and trains before she works 10-hour days at a Tucson medical centre. Her time in miserable Boston conditions was 2.44:04.

Mason, who works her training around hospital shifts, ran Rotorua in 2.46:44 - one of the fastest times run by a woman in the marathon’s 54-year history. It’s a notoriously hilly course, albeit one of the most scenic and iconic marathons in New Zealand.

It was the first time Mason had raced the marathon distance in the geyser city; she won the 2017 national title in Wellington.

“It’s a tough course,” she said at the Rotorua finish-line. “The hills are demanding, even the downhills screw your legs, and you’ve got to keep going on the flat.

“I actually quite like the hills, they make it different. I just think ‘one hill at a time, one kilometre at a time’, and not much beyond that.”

It was on the hills at the back of Lake Rotorua, halfway through the race, that Mason made her break from Auckland runner Olivia Burne, who eventually finished second in her first marathon.

“She had such strength on the hills. She’s really worked for it,” says Burne, already a triple national champion in distance running. “At 19km, I remember thinking I wasn’t in the right place to race. So I just pulled back and did my own thing, and Alice just kept going from strength to strength.”  Mason beat Burne to the line by six minutes.

Retaining the national title had been Mason’s focus for the past six months. “I trained all through summer, even when it was boiling hot, with my coach Keegan [Williams]. We’d picked out this race a while ago,” she says.

A decade ago, Mason tried her luck racing in Europe in her specialty 3000m steeplechase. But she came home after a series of injuries, and decided to concentrate on a medical degree. Now injury-free, she wants to race overseas again searching for a fast, flat marathon course to slice time off her personal best - 2.44:05 set at the Saitama Marathon in Japan last November.

Mason can’t imagine putting medicine on the shelf to run full-time. “I go to work and get a bit of a perspective that running isn’t everything,” she says.

In a few months’ time, she will move to work at Rotorua Hospital, which comes with the bonus of training in the Redwoods.

Burne, meanwhile, will keep running the infamous Waiatarua hills of the Waitakere Ranges, the roads her coach, 84-year-old Barry Magee, ran in the 1960s as one of “Arthur’s Boys” - disciples of legendary running coach Arthur Lydiard. Magee won marathon bronze at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Although it was her first marathon, 26-year-old Burne already wants to run the distance at an Olympic Games. “But I also want to go and lie down,” she said after running around the lake in 2.53:18.

“I can’t believe how elated I feel to finish that. I never thought I’d be the person who was stoked to finish a marathon. Honestly, I just wanted to feel a marathon - now I can get a bit more tactical.” Until a year ago, she wasn’t even interested in running one.

It’s no surprise, though, that Burne has reached this distance. Her parents were both runners – her dad, Richard, finished second in the Rotorua Marathon in 1979.

She’s been coached by Magee since she was a teen at Palmerston North Girls High. In 2008, Burne was part of the New Zealand team that won the world schools cross country championships in the Czech Republic.

She took up an athletics scholarship at Stony Brook University in New York state, where she majored in journalism. In 2014, she was named American East Woman of the Year – awarded to the college athlete who best distinguished herself in academic and athletic excellence.

Returning home, she’s worked for the New Zealand Olympic Committee and the Auckland Blues rugby team. In the past year, she’s been crowned New Zealand champion over 10km on the road, and both the 3000m and 5000m on the track. Although she gave up running for a while, she’s glad Magee encouraged her back.

“My coach is a historic marathoner, and he’s a bit of a counsellor too. He’s a coach who just loves his athletes, and who cares deeply for their holistic health too,” she says.

Burne now works in marketing and communications for the Venn Foundation, a theological education trust, and isn’t ready for athletics to become her career.

“Running isn’t my number one passion yet,” she says. “I’m also passionate about theological education and my family. For now, running is a priority in check.”

-In the men's marathon at Rotorua, Christchurch teacher Blair McWhirter led from the outset, winning in 2:29:00, almost six minutes clear of Whakatane farmer Sjors Corporaal.

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