Fleet-footed cop can’t eat on the run
In spite of the unprecedented challenges Mel Aitken faces taking care of New Zealand's police, the Kiwi ultra star keeps running every day - and at record pace.
She’s one of New Zealand’s top cops, and one of the fastest ultrarunners in the country too.
But sometimes Mel Aitken is guilty of not taking care of herself as meticulously as she looks after the well-being of her police colleagues.
Take her latest race – a six-hour global solidarity event she ran in Wellington a fortnight ago. Aitken was one of a team of eight Kiwi women and men who competed in the virtual race – running wherever they live in New Zealand, against 400 other runners doing the same thing around the world.
The event was organised by the International Association of Ultrarunners to bring solidarity to the running community in the face of the global pandemic that has scratched almost every international event this year.
The 43-year-old Aitken - whose day job sees her responsible for the wellness and safety of the 14,000 people in the New Zealand Police – was the quickest of the New Zealand runners.
And her distance covered over the six hours – 73.2km – was an unofficial New Zealand record.
As “stoked” as Aitken was to run as far and as fast as she did, she also admits on the Dirt Church Radio podcast she didn’t exactly look after her own well-being.
During the entire six hours running non-stop, she barely ate a thing.
“One of my biggest downfalls in all my running - and I'm quite open about it - is my poor nutrition when I'm racing,” Aitken says. “So, I know I need to put fuel in, but I can't bring myself to do it.”
During the race she ate one-and-a-half little packets of energy gel, smaller than your hand.
“I have this like mental block where I know I should take stuff in and then I think ‘I'll just keep going a bit further, and a bit further’. And then I sort of hit the wall of ‘I really should have taken something’ but then I just can't face consuming anything,” Aitken says.
“So, I suffered. Nobody’s perfect, and it’s something I just need to work on and make myself take stuff in.
Even her husband, Steve, could convince her. “[He] was going along beside me, but he knew not to say ‘Mel, eat something.’ He was looking at me like ‘No, you really need to’. But he knew better to just keep the trap shut,” she laughs.
But still she ran further than anyone on her team, including fellow top ultra-women Dawn Tuffery, Emma Bassett, Emily Solsberg and Fiona Hayvice. The next fastest runner on Kiwi soil was Aucklander Andrew McDowall.
“There was no pressure; I wasn't trying to beat anybody,” Aitken says. “I was just going out and running for fun and I sort of surprised myself.
“It was just a really cool, different way of still feeling united globally. We can't get across the ditch or we can't travel to other countries to do our races. Cheering the different teams that were racing across the globe, and then seeing the results afterwards was just cool because you still felt like you were part of that whole sort of team and race feel. But in the virtual world.”
Running on her own, on a course she’d mapped out around the capital, Aitken almost bungled her race plan early when she took a wrong turn and ended up down a dirt track leading nowhere – on the wrong side of the Hutt River.
“I hit this whole fear of ‘If there’s a bogeyman in these bushes then I'm buggered because no one's going to find me’, so that made me turn around and run pretty quickly back to the start and get back on the road again,” she says.
Aitken’s impressive distance would have been a New Zealand record, but it can’t be counted because of the unusual nature of a virtual race. She’s not perturbed, though – she’s going to try to better the six-hour record again in November in the Sri Chinmoy races at Auckland’s AUT Millennium Stadium.
It’s been a very quiet year racing trails for Aitken, whose 2019 was action-packed with victories in the Tarawera Ultra 50km race, the 85km Old Ghost Road Ultra, second overall – man or woman - in the national 100km championships, and a bronze medal at the Xterra trail running world championships in Hawaii.
But on the other hand, it’s been an eventful year in her day job. Aitken was the police area commander on the West Coast before taking on a role in at the NZ Police headquarters in Wellington as national manager for the Safer People initiative.
“It's basically overseeing wellness, health and safety, physical education, medical and return to work for all our people within the police. So, yeah, it's pretty awesome and a real change in role within the police for me,” she says.
“Where up until this role, my whole job has been external facing, looking after the community, this is now about looking after the wellness of our own employees.”
Aitken, who’s been in the police force for 21 years, says healthier police should translate into a healthier interaction with the public.
“Our staff see some pretty horrific things and for a long time we've had good support mechanisms and initiatives in place. But what's been amazing in the time I've been here is the appetite for a real prevention focus,” she says.
“So keeping our people fit and well, rather than wait until we have to respond to, you know, adverse things or people falling over, whether it's physical or mental injury. We're really driving breaking down the stigma around mental health.
“It's a really great time to be able to be in a position where I can hopefully influence and help our people do what they do and remain well.”
During her almost two years in the role, she’s helped to take care of police involved in the Christchurch terror attacks and the White Island eruption, and now looking after their health and safety in the Covid-19 pandemic.
This latest situation has meant preparing the police with PPE gear, and drawing up procedures to avoid possible exposure to the virus.
“For me it's a bit of a dream job, in that I live and breathe wellness. I'm passionate about my running, passionate about my diet - other than when I’m out racing and then I forget about it,” she quips.
“But I genuinely love wellbeing and everything that contributes to it. It’s a demanding job, a big job. But I’m doing something that I can actually speak from the heart and be really authentic about and, you know, walk the talk.”
As an essential worker, she was able to run to and from work every day during Level 4 lockdown. And coronavirus also led the highly-competitive Aitken to discover she loves the journey leading up to a race, as much as the race itself.
Her calendar is filling up with events again, now. Next weekend she has the Rotorua Marathon, then the Crater Rim Ultra on Christchurch’s Port Hills two weeks later, and a fortnight after that the Auckland Marathon before her Sri Chinmoy challenge.
Aitken had a few big overseas races planned this year that didn’t happen. But she’s pragmatic about it.
“Hey, I'm in the same boat as everyone else. And the really cool thing is that we can still run. It’s not like you haven't got competition, so you can't do sport,” she says. “You can still go out and do it.”
* Dirt Church Radio is a Kiwi trail running podcast hosted by Eugene Bingham and Matt Rayment. Learn more at dirtchurchradio.com