Ageless national 10,000m champion is not slowing down

Sally Gibbs has gone from dodging cross-country runs at school to winning national running titles in her 50s. Suzanne McFadden reports. 

When Sally Gibbs retained her women’s national 10,000m running title in Inglewood last month, she finished a good minute clear of her nearest rival. There is nothing overly notable about the margin of her victory.

But at 54 years old, competing in an open class for a national title, Gibbs was also 25 years ahead of her closest opponent. And that’s what makes her story so remarkable.

Gibbs is a humble, and frank, athlete. She might try to argue that it was all about who turned up at the start-line on the day. But her previous records – on the track, the road, and up and down mountains – prove that she is an outstanding runner, regardless of her years.

“Well, age has slowed me down, and made me more focused on trying to prevent injuries,” says the Katikati athlete, who turns 55 in June. “But to me, sport is about what you can do, not what you can’t. I think barriers are often mental as much as physical.”

In a relatively short career, Gibbs has won the New Zealand women’s (open) 10,000m championship three times. She was the first woman to win both the national women’s marathon and half-marathon titles in the same year – when she was 50. She has also been the national mountain running champion, and won the world championship for her age group in 2015, running in the Snowdonia mountains of Wales.

And she’s achieved all of this since taking up running in her mid-40s.

It all began when Gibbs was a journalist, working on the Waihi Leader community newspaper in the Bay of Plenty, and wanted to cover a local running event from a different perspective than standing at the finish line with a notepad. “I decided to have a go myself … to get a personal experience angle,” she says.

She enjoyed it – even though she’d always avoided it, by “throwing sickies” on school cross-country days.

“I grew up in pretty much a non-sporting family, and my experiences at class netball made me think I was hopeless at sport. I remember enjoying hurdles and high jump at primary school – neither of which I turned out to have any talent for,” she laughs.

After raising four children – all adults now – Gibbs took up masters swimming. “The masters atmosphere encouraged me to become involved in sport, and gave me a passion for it,” she says. At one New Zealand masters games, she entered a sprint triathlon as well, and discovered she had “some potential in running”.

A friend asked her to train with her for the 45th Rotorua Marathon: “I was 45 at the time, so it seemed like a good idea.”

She then joined the local athletics club, the Tauranga Ramblers, and came under the tutelage of former New Zealand cross-country representative Barry Ellis. “He taught me how to train because when I started running seriously, I knew nothing. The first training programme he gave me included ‘stride-outs’. I had to ask what they were!” Ellis is still her coach, although he’s there more for guidance these days.

Gibbs won her first national title in the women’s 10,000m in 2012. Running on her home track in Tauranga, she also set a national age-group record with her time of 34m 45.21s.

Gibbs is being realistic when she says it depends who turns up on the day. New Zealand’s current best 10,000m runner, Camille Buscomb, has been racing overseas in preparation for next month’s Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, where she will compete in the 5000m and 10,000m. Her personal best time in the 10km is 31m 45.02, run last year at a meet at Stanford University, which qualified her for the 2017 world track and field championships.

The all-time best 10km time set by a New Zealand woman was 30m 35.54s, set by London Olympian Kimberley Smith in 2008. But when it comes to the national title, Gibbs can only beat those who turn up - and she has vanquished all comers three times in the last six years.

The year Gibbs was the first woman home in the Rotorua marathon, 2014, was a triple celebration of sorts. It was the 50th anniversary of the iconic race, and she ran in it as a salute to her own 50th birthday. “I never expected to win it,” she says. A bonus gift was that it also doubled as the New Zealand marathon championships.

Last year, she was second across the line in the national women’s marathon champs, contested in the Wellington marathon.

Gibbs has no preference for terrain or distance – she competes in the 1500m and the marathon, and virtually any event in between. She runs every day – a medley of easy pace, tempo, speedwork, hill climbs and longer runs, depending on the event she’s training for. And she always has her next event planned: “It’s good motivation to get out the door.”

There is no shortage of support from her family, in particular her husband Brendan, the reverend at Katikati’s St Peter’s Church. But Sally has to admit that there is also “some tension”, that comes with the time and commitment she must devote to running if she wants to stay competitive.

Running has also become an ideal way for Gibbs to see the world – often from on high. She’s represented New Zealand at three world mountain running championships, twice in Italy and in Wales, where she drank in the picture postcard views. She’s competed in numerous world masters events – the most recent, collecting five titles in her age group at last year’s World Masters Games in Auckland.

A “desire to make the most of every opportunity” keeps her running. “I’m still enjoying it and I still have a lot of goals in my sights,” she says.

She has more age-group records in her sights and wants to compete in one of the world’s big marathons. She’s now in training for the Gold Coast marathon in July. It’s the race where she has run her fastest time, of 2 hours 41 minutes and 15 seconds, and knows it’s a good course to run quick times.

“I also definitely believe exercise has so many benefits for both your physical and mental health,” she says. “And there’s great camaraderie in sport. You race against each other, but when you’re not racing, you make some wonderful friendships.”

And she is constantly inspired by those who’ve been dashing around on this earth for much longer than her. “I’ve seen a lot of people a lot older than me who I really respect and admire doing what they’re doing,” Gibbs says.

“A couple of weeks ago, at our national masters track and field championships, there was an 85-year-old running in our 5000m race. Obviously us younger ones were a couple of laps ahead of her, but she was really running – not shuffling – so we stayed track-side and cheered her on. Because she was amazing.”

She’d like to imagine herself doing the same in 30 years’ time.

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