Police inspector Mel Aitken has run for New Zealand over many distances, but still dreams of wearing the silver fern in a marathon. Jim Kayes reports.
There are days when Mel Aitken, the top police officer on the West Coast, turns up to the Greymouth station looking like a drowned rat.
“People say I’m an idiot, but I’m really happy,” says the 41-year-old, who runs to work most days. “When I’m running, it’s my time.”
One of the country’s leading distance runners, Aitken’s bedside alarm goes off at 4.30am. Every day.
With the sun still several hours away, she rolls from under the warm duvet, has breakfast, then pulls on her shoes and steps out into the cold West Coast air.
If it’s a work day, Aitken might run there, including 25km of hard work in her route, before arriving at the Greymouth Police Station, where she is the police area commander for the West Coast.
Or she might run a loop back home and then ride her bike to work. Either way, it’s part of a daily ritual that sees her clock up at least 140km in training each week.
Not bad for a woman who detested running as a girl. Pretty good for someone who once laboured to pass the police fitness test of 2.4km. And a long distance run away from the young woman who would set out in tracksuit pants and a baggy sweatshirt for what was, in those days, a “run” that included walking every second lamppost.
Now she is a New Zealand cross country champion, and the Oceania half marathon champion. She represented New Zealand at the world trail running championships in Castellon, Spain, last month. And won her age group in the Gold Coast Marathon at the weekend.
“Some people call it an obsession, but I call it a passion,” says Aitken, who stands just 157.5cm tall.
Growing up in Dunedin, Aitken was an avid horse rider. But a fall about 12 years ago left her with a four broken vertebrae in her back.
She lost confidence in riding and turned to what was, for her, the most unlikely of pursuits as a hobby.
“I hated running growing up,” she admits. But she entered a 23km trail run in Dunedin on a whim just before her 35th birthday, and came third. And then her fierce competitiveness did the rest.
“That sniff of being able to do something and being okay at it was enough of an incentive.”
From being the “shy girl who hid away”, Aitken has taken a huge amount of confidence from running.
“It’s given me self-belief and it’s helped me to not be afraid to step out of my comfort zone,” she says.
While she and her husband Steve, also a police officer, live near Greymouth, Aitken is now on a four-week secondment to police headquarters in Wellington as an acting superintendent.
It will give this driven and highly successful woman a taste of what might be; of where her career may go next after her time on the West Coast.
She admits to falling into the role of area commander – the first woman to hold the job on the West Coast – having accepted it in an acting capacity. It was then offered to her full-time in 2016.
She fell in love with the area and its people and, of course, its running trails.
There are days she arrives at work in the morning soaking wet from a good West Coast rain dousing. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s such a great feeling you get after a run, when you know you’ve had a good work-out. It sets you up for the rest of the day,” she says.
“And that ability to set my goals and to achieve them is great. I always want to be better and running gives me that.”
Last month, Aitken represented New Zealand in a two-runner team at the trail world championships on Spain’s demanding Penyagalosa Trails, finishing 56th in the women’s field over the 85km distance. She wants to run in next year’s race in Portugal, and has several races – ranging from 51km to 100km – over the next few months to qualify.
She enjoys the mental challenge of the longer distances.
“If you’ve done the training, the physical challenge is not that hard. It’s telling yourself you have 40km to go when you’re tired,” she says.
Aitken breaks an ultra-distance race down into manageable sections of smaller distances. It might be the distance from home to a favourite trail run, or from work to home, or the 6km of a cross-country race.
“But yeah, I guess I am mentally tough,” she concedes, “or just stupid”.
She will also have another crack at the cross country nationals and the Oceania half marathon championships – a title she won in Vanuatu last December, but in a time (1h 25.43m) that she wasn’t happy with.
There was a tropical downpour just before the race started and Aitken struggled with the humidity. “It was horrific. I won the title but it was an awful race,” she says.
At last year’s Gold Coast marathon, Aitken ran a personal best of 2h 47m, winning her age group in the process. In the 2018 event raced on Sunday, she ran 2h 51m, and again topped the 40-44 women’s division.
“The road marathon is my favourite distance. It’s what I’m most comfortable with,” she says.
But it forms the one goal she realises she may never be able to achieve. It’s her dream to represent New Zealand in a marathon at the Commonwealth or Olympic games.
“I know it’s not realistic,” she says. “The New Zealand qualification times [for Olympics and Commonwealth Games] are harder than the actual qualifying standards and are probably too tough for me.
“But I won’t give up on that dream. It’s a proud moment when you get to run with the silver fern on your chest.”
Whatever the future holds, Aitken knows she will always run, even on a freezing, wet West Coast winter’s morning when the alarm goes off hours before the sun has peaked over the horizon. “I’m never put off,” she laughs.