How running 20K and tackling New Zealand policing head on is all in a day’s work for Mel Aitken.
When Mel Aitken wanted to join New Zealand Police in 1999, the then 22-year-old struggled to run the required 2.4km as part of the recruitment testing.
“I remember measuring out the distance and attempting to run/walk between lamp posts. I was seriously unfit, but knew if it was something I really wanted, then the only way I would get it was by pushing myself,” says the South Island West Coast Area Commander.
Now, 17 years later, Mel has numerous national running titles to her name, including the 2015 Masters Road and Masters Cross Country Championships. She’s competed in 23 marathons and boasts a 2:49 PB.
“I actually couldn’t think of life without running now,” says the self-described goal-driven and disciplined competitor.
So committed is Mel that she sets her alarm at 4:30am everyday and logs 20K before work.
“I aim for between 120 and 140km a week incorporating hills, flat and tempo work,” she explains. “I often need to juggle or be flexible with the days I choose to do what depending on my work commitments, but I find running early mornings keeps me honest.”
The 39-year-old’s training regime is even more admirable given Mel broke her back eight years ago after falling from her horse. Having spent her teenage years competing in dressage and equestrian events, the accident was devastating. She fractured four vertebrae, endured a four-year rehabilitation and then decided horse riding was no longer for her.
“Being a competitive person, I couldn’t sit on my laurels and not be doing something,” she says. “I needed to find something that would keep me fit and give me the same buzz that I got from riding and competing.”
In early 2012 Mel began to run.
Remarkably, her first race was a 23km off-road event around the Otago Peninsula. “I placed third in a competitive field and was hooked,” she says.
Nowadays, if a race doesn’t beckon on the weekend, she hits the trails for anywhere between 30 and 45km for “a self-reward for my week of early morning road runs”!
Having grown up in Dunedin, Mel says it’s hard to beat her favourite scenic trails such as the Pineapple Track. But, after moving to Greymouth in January 2016 to take up her new post as West Coast Area Commander, she turned her attention to the Heaphy Track in Kahurangi National Park.
In fact, it was attempting to run the 80K track in a day, as part of a national torch relay marking the 75th Women in Policing anniversary, that inspired Mel to take up ultra running.
The relay saw female officers carry a torch across the country while running, marching, bungy jumping, scaling Glaciers and skydiving before ending with a national parade in Wellington on August 1.
“It was very special to be a part of these celebrations and reflect on how far women have come in the police in a relatively short time,” says Mel, who wanted to join the force from age 14 after the Aramoana massacre unfolded near her family home. “But there is still more to be done, including making sound recruitment decisions and encouraging and supporting women to reach their full potential. The real success will be when we see our first female Commissioner.”
Unfortunately, on the day of Mel’s relay leg a severe storm forced her to withdraw 30km shy of her goal.
“I started off at 6am from the Karamea township, but there was a violent thunder storm, it was dark and horizontal rain was coming off the Tasman Sea,” she recalls. Rapidly rising rivers throughout the track made continuing unsafe. “Running 50K that day was good, but 80K would have been better,” she says. “I feel like I have unfinished business now. Just getting a sniff of how beautiful it was, was like passing a handful of lollies under the nose of a child but not letting them eat up!”
After placing second in the 2015 and 2016 Christchurch Marathon Mel is eager to test her limits, and is preparing for the 60K Fresh Choice Kepler Challenge in December and 85K Old Ghost Ultra in February 2017.
With 65 officers under her command covering a geographical region spanning the same drive distance as Auckland to Wellington, Mel has her work cut out.
“The social impact of continued unemployment, mental health, drug and alcohol related issues continue to dive the demands of our business,” she says.
But, it’s the high pressure mental and physical demands of her work and training combined that really makes Mel tick. “A busy schedule is something I thrive on,” she says. “And I encourage any kind of activity that provides a stress release or break away from the pressures of work. I think leading by example demonstrates that it can be done, regardless of workload.”