Above: Liduina Melchers (second from left) with Masterton clubmates in 1974.
In the latest of our series of features reflecting on the 1977 Rotorua Marathon. Steve Landells speaks to the triumphant winner of the women’s race from 40 years ago - Liduina Melchers.
It is hard to comprehend the meteoric journey women’s marathon running has undergone over the past 40 years. Back in 1977 the women’s world record mark - at least at the beginning of the year - stood at a relatively modest 2:38, women only competed in marathons in tiny numbers and women were not to make their Olympic marathon debut for a further seven years.
Yet the Rotorua Marathon – New Zealand’s most iconic 42.2km event – was adapting to changes times.
Women officially competed for the first time in the 1974 edition with Val Darroch of Palmerston North Harrier Club crossing the finishing line first in 3:36. The following year she was succeeded by a young, wide-eyed 18-year-old by the name of Liduina Melchers, who completed the course in 3:36:29.
Compared to 1974 Commonwealth Games marathon silver medallist Jack Foster’s victory that day in the men’s event, Liduina’s triumph hardly garnered any column inches but it was another small step in advancement of women’s marathoning and in 1977 she returned this time hoping to crack the 3:15 barrier.
Born in Masterton to Dutch parents, Liduina’s gift for running was spotted early and she joined Masterton Harriers aged nine. She impressed in her schoolgirl years and qualified to compete for New Zealand at the 1973 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Belgium as a 16-year-old.
Competing against adults and on the same team as Anne Garrett (later 1982 Commonwealth 3000m gold medallist Anne Audain) she recalls the trip fondly for instilling in her a new-level of confidence.
“I was really shy but hanging out with adults for a month (as part of the trip) made me more confident and I returned much more comfortable talking to adults and teachers,” recalls Liduina, who today lives just outside of Philadelphia, where she has lived with her husband, Columba, for more than 30 years.
Her development also progressed under the guidance of Masterton Harriers coach Len Frances, a man who took a group of promising young male and female athletes “under his wing.”
Running six days a week – including one training run of three hours plus per week – and by now studying at Wellington Teachers’ College – she was well prepared for her assault on the 1977 Rotorua Marathon.
However, she recalls that back then her running shoes were “rudimentary” at best.
“I remember buying New Balance shoes out of my fruit-picking money, but really they had no bounce to them and when I think about it they were not much better than canvas shoes,” she explains.
The passage of time has dulled the precise memories of her glorious race day some 40 years ago but she recalls driving up in Frances’ ute with a group of team-mates and fondly recalls the camaraderie of the group.
“I always ran my races from the back of the field, it was a confidence thing,” she explains. “I enjoyed passing people in the race and I remember every time I ran alongside a guy they would take one look at me (being a woman) and just take off. It was hilarious. I didn’t care. I knew I would catch them anyway.”
Running with a refreshing naivety – she ran with no watch and had little idea of pacing – she also had no clue as to her race position.
“It was only when I came into the finishing strip and someone shouted out ‘you are the first woman’ did I realise where I was,” explains Liduina, who crossed the line in 3:20:07 more than eight-and-a-half minutes clear of her nearest rival. “To be honest, I’m not really a competitive person, but it was lovely and wonderful to win.”
Liduina’s competitive career came to an end in the early 1980s from which point she moved overseas and later started a family – she has two grown up children aged in their 20s.
In 2003 she ran the New York Marathon and still runs for fun these days but looks back modestly on her achievements as a two-time winner of the Rotorua Marathon.
“Those times I ran look ridiculous compared to the times that top women can run today,” she says. “But back then, I didn’t really race to the point of exhaustion. I raced for the joy of it.”