Changing room

New Rotorua Marathon champion Mel Brandon hasn’t had the most conventional running career. But she found her rhythm at 44, making her three children proud.

Mel Brandon started running at the age of 37 to help her through a marriage breakdown. And then she continued.

There were several obstacles to overcome along the way. Before she could even start seriously pounding the pavements, she had to undergo surgery that allowed her to run.

She managed to hold down a full-time job (and recently, two) and raise her three children as a single mother. She takes them to their sport – while adapting to 100 km per week of her own training to become a competitive marathon runner.

And now, at 44, Brandon isn’t just taking part — she’s winning. Her latest victory, the first woman on home soil at the Rotorua Marathon on Saturday.

And although she had four medals around her neck at the race’s prize giving, Brandon’s ultimate reward is to make her teenage children proud and to be an inspiration to them – and to others. moms.

“Children are my ultimate driving force. I think of them while I run, especially when I run,” says the mother of two girls, 15 and 13, and an 11-year-old boy. “They are my mental pick-me-up when I fight; they give me that extra push to keep going.

“I just want to make them proud. There were sacrifices, like nights where I could watch a movie with them and run for an hour. Or sometimes dinner is late and their sweaty mother tries to throw food on the table.

“But my eldest recently said to me, ‘You are a very good role model for us, mum. I want to be a strong, independent woman like you when I grow up. It blew me away.”

While Mel Brandon loved road racing, she sees her future on the trails. Photo: provided.

It’s his seventh year in a row and Brandon has never been so successful. This year, she set new personal bests in the 10k and half marathon and won the first ultramarathon she had ever run.

She attributes her success to still having “young racing legs” that haven’t been worn down over the years. But his age gives him another advantage.

“For those longer events, you need mental resilience and life experience to get through when things start to get a little dark out there,” she laughs.

His winning time over 42.2km in Rotorua of 3:00:08 fell short of his target of bettering his personal best of 2:53:22 (winning set from the Wairarapa marathon last year).

“But to get a win here is still pretty amazing,” she said afterwards. She also won her age group 40-44 and the National Masters Championship with her performance.

Although she was a latecomer to running as an adult, Brandon feels she must have had some natural talent. She was the fastest girl at Ngaio School in Wellington – a school with a long running heritage – and competed for the Onslow Amateur Athletic Club as a child in all sprint distances.

But when she arrived at Wellington Girls’ College, netball became her No. 1 sport and athletics fell away. “But even then, I was never really encouraged to play sports and I don’t remember having any role models in sports,” she says.

She went overseas at 20 and stayed active by biking, hiking and kayaking. But it wasn’t until after the birth of her third child that she took her fitness and well-being seriously.

Before she could race, she had to undergo surgery to repair the “serious damage” she suffered while having children. “I had no chance of running before I had this surgery,” she says.

“After my first half marathon, I was just thankful that I finished and that nothing went wrong, so I saw that as a major achievement.”

Brandon started by organizing the Round the Bays in Wellington with work colleagues. She enjoyed the workout so much that she continued and realized that she hadn’t lost the ability to run fast like she had as a child.

When she decided to become competitive, there were more obstacles. “It was really difficult – I had a full-fledged job,” she says.

“The kids were younger, and I had them for a week or so, so the weeks I had them I didn’t train, and when they weren’t with me I raced. That was good for me. to fill up the gaps when they weren’t there, to be proactive and not to be pining for them.

“Then as I got into it, practice week, the week off wasn’t really good, so I had a treadmill in the living room, which the kids found pretty cool.”

Mel Brandon receives his winner’s bouquet from Athletics NZ chief Pete Pfitzinger at the Rotorua Marathon. Photo: Aaron Gillions.

Her daughters now live with her full-time, and there are various “teenage challenges” to overcome.

Brandon doesn’t practice in the morning because she’s going back to school on her way to work. “So it’s either a quick run at lunchtime or when my son is at soccer practice for an hour I’ll do a speed session. And I adapt to longer runs on the weekends. -end if the elder takes care of the younger,” she says.

All of his children were runners “when they were young enough to be directed to activities” so there were four yellow Scottish club Wellington shirts side by side on the clothesline. But now the children play team sports – his daughters in netball and his son in football.

Brandon loves how his daughters send photos to their friends when their mom wins a race.

“Life is not all roses; we have typical adolescent repressions. But overall, they’re all pretty proud of me,” she says.

One of his racing highlights was breaking the three-hour New York City Marathon in 2019. His dream would be to run a sub-2:50m marathon.

She was hoping to make it to Rotorua this time, but she had faced a different hurdle in the preparation. During his four-week training program, Brandon was transitioning to a new job: “So I did two jobs for a while there…it wasn’t the best,” she says.

She went from being a people and culture manager at a health insurance company to working for Wētā Workshop in the same role. Not only is she inspired by their award-winning creativity, but she has new trails to hike on the Wellington Harbor waterfront from Miramar.

Mel Brandon hits the roads of Masterton during the 2019 Wairarapa Half Marathon. Photo: Sharon Wray.

Brandon is heading straight into his next challenge, the Auckland Marathon on October 30. It’s the eve of his 45e birthday, so she couldn’t turn down the chance to run.

She participated in her first ultramarathon in July – the WUU2K, a race that connects all the trails in the city. Brandon tackled the full 62km event and set a new course record of 6h 31m 37s.

“I’m not a spring hen, but my body held up better on the trails than on the road,” she says.

“I would love to do more trail running. I think I will have one last chance at a PB on the road, but the trail is where my future racing is.

Brandon doesn’t have to look far to find models still active in their later years. One is her teammate Michele Allison; now in her 60s, she is one of the great stars of Wellington Scottish. She is also the sister of the late Bernie Portenski (a Kiwi legend who ran the Rotorua Marathon 33 times during her 114 marathon career; she started running at the age of 30 and set world records by age group).

The other is Sally Gibbs, the 59-year-old who holds a host of world master records for distances between 1,500m and 10km, who started running in her mid-40s. (Gibbs was the first sportswoman featured in LockerRoom in 2018, when she successfully defended the women’s national 10k road title at age 54).

“My goal would be to continue racing into my 60s,” says Brandon. “I may not be at the top of my game yet, but I want to feel fit and eat well.” And be happy.

* Mel Brandon won the Rotorua Marathon nearly three minutes ahead of New Plymouth’s Courtney Pratt, with Piha’s Billie-Lee Haresnape six minutes behind the winner in third. Michael Voss overcame cramp to claim an unprecedented treble of titles in Rotorua in the men’s race, crossing the line in 2h 29m 21s.