By Jonathan Gault
February 5, 2015
While America was distracted getting ready for Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday, New Zealand’s Zane Robertson was in Japan running 59:47 to take second at the Marugame Half Marathon (winner Paul Kuira was credited with the same time). Robertson, who has track pbs of 3:34.19 and 13:13.83, had never run a track 10,000, let alone a half marathon, prior to Sunday, yet he is now the third-fastest non-African of all time.
Robertson had success on the track last year, taking the bronze medal in the 5,000 at the Commonwealth Games, but this result still registered as a massive surprise, akin to Ryan Hall‘s 59:43 in Houston in 2007. Eight years ago at age 17, Zane and his twin brother Jake moved to Kenya to pursue their goals as professional runners. It looks like the move is paying off.
I spoke to Robertson over the phone from his training base in Iten, Kenya, on Thursday morning.
Jonathan Gault: I was looking through your results and I saw a few 10k road races, but no track 10,000s. Why did you decide to run a half marathon?
Zane Robertson: Basically since September 2013 after the season closed, I joined a group of marathoners in Ethiopia and I really started thriving with the program. The last two years, we’ve had the men’s winner from Dubai Marathon (Tsegaye Mekonnen in 2014; Hayle Lemi Berhanu in 2015). We’ve had some real challengers coming from the group — the World [Half Marathon Championships] bronze medallist [Guye Adola], who has run 59:06. I thought the way I was going with this, the results, the training suggested a time under 60 minutes for the half marathon.
So did you expect Lemi to do so well in Dubai? I follow the sport pretty closely and I had never heard of him before Dubai.
It’s funny. I came to Kenya in early December for a little bit of track preparation before making the decision to run Marugame. I was telling all the Kenyans I had a guy that I train with, he’s unknown but he’s going to win Dubai. And Lemi was the guy I was talking about. Even with the big names like [Kenenisa] Bekele, I had faith in what I saw him doing in training. He was ready to run fast.
Were you trying to peak for the half-marathon?
I trained through the New Year’s Eve 10k where I think I could have run a little better (Robertson was third at the BOClassic 10k in Italy, behind Muktar Edris and Imane Merga in 29:12). I did have a few days easy before this race. I can’t say peaked really, because my major focus is the World Championships. It’s all just been strength work for the last two months.
You mentioned you thought you were in sub-60 shape, was that the goal?
Yeah. It sounds ridiculous, I know, because I had never run one before, but all my training pointed at something below 60:00. Honestly, I was really nervous, especially before the race. I kind of just put it out of my race and said, “It’s a race.” But to achieve it after all the work is something amazing.
Did you change your training at all to prepare?
Yeah. The last two years, I joined a marathon group. They belong to my manager Gianni Demadonna. The program is regulated by two Ethiopian coaches who basically take the program from Renato Canova and Gabriele Nicola.
How much did you step up your mileage?
Because I live in a very steep forest, I can climb altitude, 200 or 300 meters or higher very quickly, so it’s hard to do high-kilometer mileage on my easy days. But on the easy days, we do more of an effort theory. An average week was around 160k, and a high mileage week was 180k at the max (Editor’s note: For people used to miles per week that’s ~ 100 to 112 mpw). Because of the high altitude, the environment, you have to put all aspects together to get the final resolution.
But this was more mileage than you had done in the past for the 5,000?
When you’re trying to get the speed quality for track races, you can’t recover if you’re running huge mileages in this terrain. It’s all about finding your rhythm and feeling your body — what you need and when you need it. I think the Africans are very good at that.
Does this result change how you view yourself as a runner? Do you still think of yourself as a 5,000 runner?
I’m actually really excited for a debut in the 10,000 meters this year. I have a good feeling about the event because if I can run 59:47 and 3:34 within a very close time from September to February (Robertson ran 3:34.19 in Rieti on September 7), 10,000 is maybe an event I should look into this year.
Are you doing World Cross?
No. I had never planned to run the World Cross Country because we’ve set up a 5,000 track race in New Zealand on February 26. It’s New Zealand summer, so with my recent bronze medal at Commonwealths, I wanted to run a race for the people. I haven’t run a race for the last eight years back in New Zealand. The 5,000 there [at the Auckland Track Challenge], I’ve invited two of my friends from Africa, Augustine Choge and Mekonnen Gebremedhin, who is usually more of a 1500 runner. Nick Willis and my brother will run, and possibly Juan Luis Barrios, though he’s yet to be confirmed.
Do you have a 10,000 race in mind for this season?
It’s too soon to say because it’s not set, but I’m looking at Ostrava on June 26. I would really like to run the Rome 5000 [on June 4] and the Oslo Dream Mile [on June 11] if I can get into it. These will be my buildup races for the 10,000.
Will you decide what to run at Worlds based on how that 10,000 goes?
You have your own personal expectations, but I can’t doubt myself because then it’s already over. If it’s a good feeling, I will focus on the 10,000 and possibly double because the 5,000 is after the 10. If I don’t double, I might still focus on the 5 because 13:13 (Robertson’s pb) is not so fast yet.
What are your goals for this season?
I’d like to say challenge for the gold medal in 10,000, but that’s too soon to say. I would really like to challenge for a gold medal in either event and definitely drop some serious times.
You’ve run 3:53 for the mile and now 59:47 for the half. That kind of range reminds me of another Kiwi — Rod Dixon (also a 3:53 miler who ran 2:08:59 for the marathon). Do you think you could do what he did and become a successful marathoner one day?
Definitely. I’m so excited about the marathon and what the future holds for me, but I know I’m still a bit too young. The endurance in the body isn’t quite there yet. When I want to go to the marathon, I want to do it right. I want to be 100% ready. I think it’s an event, like the half, it’s how much pain you can tolerate over time and I think living in Africa has given me an advantage in the longer distance events.
Where are you right now?
Before the half marathon, I was in Ethiopia for the last three weeks of preparation. Now I’m back in Kenya to start my track preparation. Probably Doha [on May 15] will be my first race [of the summer season].
Where in Kenya are you? Is that your main training base for the year?
Iten until the rainy season starts, then I’ll move to Europe. Until Ostrava, I’ll be here, in a small rental house next to my brother.
Do you still train with your brother?
Yeah. Not every day because it’s good to have a solo long run, I still believe in that. Sometimes it’s good to run alone, feel your own body and what kind of pace it wants to go.
During my own running career, the long run was always the run I wanted company for. It’s tough to focus alone for such a long time. That’s interesting that you prefer to do yours alone.
I definitely get enough long runs with groups. And when I really want to smash it, I’ll have a group of 20 guys to go with. But for my easy long runs, I really enjoy my peace; I’ll just go to the forest.
Do you think you would be at the level you’re at now without moving to Kenya eight years ago?
Honestly, no, definitely not. I don’t think I would have run 59:xx for the half. There’s a reason Africans have just dominated the event. I’m just a good experiment to show because I think only Ryan Hall (59:43) and [Marilson] Gomes dos Santos (59:33) are faster (as non-Africans). I do believe there was another way to go, but this was just the way for me. Everybody’s got to find their own way.
What benefits have you received in Kenya and Ethiopia that you wouldn’t have elsewhere?
Definitely mental toughness to survive hardships. Especially in the beginning we suffered a lot. Everything’s so centered toward running. But there’s household chores, collecting water. Washing is done by hand. Everything is a bit harder here.
More: Discuss this interview in our fan forum: Mo, Galen are you ready? Zane Robertson’s got big 10,000 plans: “I would really like to challenge for a gold medal”
Editor’s note: That’s the full interview but there is much ore on Robertson below. Next time we talk to him, we’ll be sure to ask him what’s up with this photo.
Below can watch video of the final 200 of Robertson’s race:
Discuss Zane’s incredible run on our fan forum MB: Zane MF Robertson.
Read us comparison of Zane To Ryan Hall in our weekly recap: Zane Robertson Pulls a Ryan Hall, Alberto Salazar is Track’s Bill Belichick, Will Claye is Not Canadian But Good For the Sport, Tweet of the Week.
Zane Robertson Talk in Our Fan Forum Over The Years:
2011: Let Us Introduce You To The 21 Yr Old Robertson Twins of NZ – Been Living In Kenya For 4 Yrs Training To Be World’s Best
2012: Where can I find more about Jake and Zane Robertson?
2014: Zane Robertson out of Great South Run, “Maybe Dubai or London next year.”
2014: Jake and zane robertson!?
2014: Zane Robertson 59:47!!! The future is here!!! How fast will he go?