Craig Barrett's participation in the Steyning and District walking races in Southern England on Easter Monday, 12 April, was both his final preparation for the IAAF World Cup of Race Walking in Naumburg, Germany (1 - 2 May) and a pilgrimage to a significant part of New Zealand's race walking history.
The 32 year old graduate of Architecture and 2002 Commonwealth Games silver medallist, completed the 15 'country miles' (25km approx.) in elegant style in a time of 1:49:04 - just outside the record of 1:47:19, clocked by Steyning Athletic Club's 13-times winner Darrell Stone in 1988. However, for Craig, records were of secondary importance to the road travelled.
"I was looking for a good workout three weeks before the 50km at Naumburg' said the Waikato walker, and 'I was also interested in retracing the historic links between Steyning and New Zealand race walking."
Annual fixture since 1903
The annual event has been an integral part of village life since 1903, when local sportsmen went to watch the first Stock Exchange London to Brighton walk. This resulted in a number of them wanting to have a go around the circuit of nearby villages which is still walked, on the exact same course, each Easter Monday.
Steyning AC was formed in 1951 to compete further a field. One of the original members was Norman Read who won the English Race Walking Association National Junior 5 mile title in the club's inaugural year. Norman had also won the traditional Steyning Easter Monday 15 mile race three times from 1949 to 1951, having won the 1947 junior's
Read was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, later being evacuated to Steyning, Sussex, during the war. In 1953, he moved to New Zealand and established himself as the nation's premier walker, winning the inaugural 20km and 50km national titles in 1956. That year he went to Australia and won their 50km walk title in his bid for Olympic selection.
His outstanding achievement was winning the 1956 Olympic Games 50km walk title in Melbourne. Although he had emigrated, he did offer himself for Great Britain selection but was not accepted, much to the obvious delight of New Zealanders. In one of the biggest upsets of the Games, Norman won gold in 4:30:42.8 over a rough course in 90-degree heat to register a two-minute victory. Conditions were so rough that day that England's Don Thompson, who went on to win the 50km gold medal in 1960, dropped out.
His effort earned New Zealand it's third Olympic athletics gold medal after Jack Lovelock (1936) and Yvette Williams (1952).
Norman returned to Steyning two years later to walk the old course once again, taking the 1958 race in front of massive crowds - in a then record time of just one second over two hours. He went on to take 5th place in the Olympic Games 20km in Rome in 1960 and in 1966 came home to win the RWA National 20 miles title en route to taking 3rd in the Commonwealth Games 20 miles in Jamaica.
Norman's younger brother Dennis took over the mantle of the local club's leading walker throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, winning the annual 15 miles race a total of ten times. His finest hour was winning the 1963 London to Brighton walk.
Back in the Southern hemisphere, Norman Read became the founder President of New Zealand Race Walking. He went on to become a member of the IAAF International Walking Panel and judged at the 1986 and 1990 Commonwealth Games and the 1992 Olympic Games. Tragically, he died while competing in a bicycle race ten years ago, just prior to the Victoria, Canada, Commonwealth Games.
Treasured link with the past
Dennis Read still lives in Steyning and keeps fit climbing ladders as a painter/decorator and competing each Easter Monday - this year finishing 19th, just over an hour slower than the inheritor of his brother's New Zealand walks titles.
Treasuring this link with legendary figure in Kiwi race walking, Craig Barrett was there to see him finish in historic Steyning High Street.
Barrett has himself gained legendary status, of sorts. Along with the 1999 All-Black Rugby World Cup team, his dramatic collapse one kilometre from the finish in the tropical heat of the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games 50km walk has become synonymous in New Zealand sport for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. He returned home a hero though - in a phone poll, Barrett was selected as one of three New Zealand athletes to receive a new car after the Games.
He has competed 5 times (more than any other New Zealander) in the IAAF World Cup of Race Walking, the first being the 1991 edition in San José, California, his best being his 1999 thirteenth placing in 3:48:14 (a personal best for 50km) in Mézidon, France. This was followed by an eighth placing four months later in the same event at the IAAF World Track and Field Championships in Seville.
He finished 18th in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games 50km Walk, in 3:55:53.
Again like the New Zealand rugby team, he stumbled on the world stage last year; at the Paris IAAF World Championship 50km he became a victim of the judging 'zero tolerance policy' as early as 5km.
Optimistic for Naumburg and Athens
Despite that, Barrett is rightly optimistic for the big events this year. He has already approached his best form in the latest 'down-under' season. In the Australian 50km Olympic Trial race on 7 December he finished second in 3:50:34 to Nathan Deakes's staggering return to 50km of 3:39:43.
"Nathan was awesome that day," said Barrett. "For him it's been a case of managing all the injuries he's had, but Robert Korzeniowski will need to look out for Deakes in his defence of the Olympic 50km in Athens."
Barrett is currently training preparing for the World Cup with the Australian squad.
Both Deakes and Korzeniowski will race the 20km in Naumburg on 2 May. "I'm hoping for a pb over 50km" said Barrett- which may well gain a top 5 placing on 1 May.
Appointment with destiny?
Perhaps Barrett's time will truly come at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, in the golden anniversary year of Norman Read's greatest victory along the same streets.
New Zealanders with a sense of history will be hoping Craig will eventually gain the recognition his persistence deserves.