Grahame Struthers boasted only two years of serious training behind him ahead of his 1977 Rotorua Marathon victory. In the latest in our series of articles focused on the 40th anniversary of the iconic race, Steve Landells chats to the Aucklander who shocked a couple of legends that day to claim a memorable race win.
In a year in which The Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee, the consumer affairs programme Fair Go was first aired on TV and Tane Norton skippered the All Blacks to a 3-1 defeat of the British Lions, Grahame Struthers was training hard preparing for the 1977 Rotorua Marathon.
The previous year in Rotorua the relative unknown had sliced five minutes from his lifetime best to run 2:22:14 to place second behind Englishman Bernie Vine. However, in 1977 he was among the favourites and it was not a feeling that sat comfortably with the modest West Aucklander.
“The 1976 race was a surprise,” he explains. “But the next year I faced a lot more pressure, people expected I would be up there and I didn’t enjoy it as much.”
Maybe his pre-race nerves can be explained by his relative lack of experience. Born and raised in Massey it was only after breaking an arm playing rugby did he take up running, but it was only after he began serious training in early 1975 did he start to see real progress.
“I came back to New Zealand after a period overseas quite inspired by the 1974 Commonwealth Games,” he says. “I then met a good runner called Roger Weatherley, who said, “if you ever want to be runner, you need to start to do some decent training’.”
The shipping clerk heeded the advice and incorporated huge 44km-round trips from his home to his city centre workplace as part of his weekly training diet.
Under the demanding training load, he quickly improved and within just over a year lopped 25 minutes from his marathon PB to a best of 2:27 ahead of the 1976 Rotorua Marathon.
There he ran 2:22:14 and Grahame, who was now coached by Kevin Ryan the 1974 Rotorua Marathon champion, continued to improve, finishing third at the New Zealand Marathon Championships in Hawera two months out from the 1977 Rotorua Marathon.
Nonetheless, it would be no easy challenge as among his main opposition included veteran Jeff Julian, a two-time Olympian and former Fukuoka Marathon winner, whom he has beaten into second the previous year, and former Boston Marathon winner and 2:12 athlete Dave McKenzie.
Another factor to consider was the course route had changed from an anti-clockwise to its existing clockwise route around Lake Rotorua, which according to Grahame made the race more of a challenge.
“The hills were in the same place at the back of the course but I do think the drag from the airport to the finish was a long way and in 1977 it was into a headwind,” he explains.
Grahame also hit a last-minute glitch with an untimely stomach bug the day before the race, but he shrugged off the inconvenience to step on to the start line.
Opting to bide his time, Julian and McKenzie took control of the race from the front before the eventual champion chose to launch his winning move on the last big hill around 30km.
“I pushed on ahead and by the time we reached the top of the hill I had opened up quite a gap,” explains Grahame. “All I needed to do now was hang on. It was a great feeling to see Jack Foster (four-time former Rotorua Marathon champion), the legend, come alongside me on his push bike and say the words, ‘you can win this’.”
Grahame duly delivered on Foster to pull further ahead and stop the clock in 2:22:43 – marginally slower than he ran in 1976 on the anti-clockwise course – but more than a minute-and-a-half clear of McKenzie in second.
“It was a great thrill to win,” says Grahame, now a 65-year-old grandfather based in Whenuapai. “My grandparents were also there and I recall my gran – who was about 5ft nothing - prodding the person next to with her umbrella saying ‘that’s my grandson.’ “
The 1977 Rotorua Marathon champion went on to win the Victoria Marathon in Melbourne in early June to complete his third marathon in 13 weeks and although he later posted several times below 2:20, he failed to finish the Rotorua Marathon on the defence of his title the following year due to a lack of fitness.
Reflecting on a proud career in the sport, Grahame who today works as an exporter, believes he fulfilled his potential and he has little doubt about the standout moment.
“Winning Rotorua was probably the highlight,” he says. “It is one of the great races on the New Zealand calendar and never an easy race to win. It is a great course, a circular course and to its great credit it has carried on for to be a successful event for many years.”