When Kiwi Zane Robertson broke the national half marathon record in Marugame, Japan, earlier this month, it was the latest leg of a journey that took him away from his homeland aged 17. This is how the distance missionary’s remarkable adventure has panned out.

Winning desire

Running barefoot, Zane and his twin brother, Jake, used to blitz all-comers on the track at provincial level in New Zealand up until the age of 14. Then they suddenly started to finish second. The pair’s competitive spirit would not stand for runners-up spots.

“One evening we went out for a run,” Zane recalls. “I got home before him [Jake], so then I went out for a tempo run. Jake got home, I wasn't there, and he went out again.

“We did that four times, and by the time our mother came out and said, ‘You're not going out again', it was eight o'clock and it was dark. So I started doing sit-ups.”

A step into the unknown

In 2007, when the Robertson twins were looking beyond school in New Zealand, they could have easily followed well-worn route for promising Kiwi athletes and attended a US university for the next stage of their athletic development. But Zane, a self-confessed “extremist” who has never “played it safe”, and his brother thought differently.

Brother Jake had met a group of Kenyan athletes while competing in the junior race at the 2006 World Cross Country Championships in Japan. Fascinated to learn more from the world’s finest distance runners, the pair left their hometown of Hamilton and headed to the high altitude running factory of Kenya.

“It was the biggest risk of my life,” Zane admits.

Zane Robertson ()

The Robertson brothers in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, where Zane (left) bagged 5000m bronze

Tough times

The first couple of years in the Kenyan running Mecca of Iten were unforgiving. The pair lived in a basic room described unflatteringly by Zane as “the concrete cell”, sleeping together on a small, thin mattress.

Yet Zane believes this period helped form the mental toughness that has seen him flourish.

“I’m so thankful we went through this hardship, because going through this the way Kenyans do, if you survive you can go through anything.”

Under the wing

Adapting to the brutal world of Kenyan distance running was tough. The Robertsons were fortunate to benefit from the input of some key figures. 

One was 1992 Olympic steeplechase silver medallist Patrick Sang; another was world steeplechase record holder Saif Saaeed Shaheen. Both helped smooth the path for their African adventure and gave them the confidence needed to thrive in an alien environment.

Stepping it up

Zane began broadening his east African running education in 2011 by dividing his time between Ethiopia and Kenya. He believes Ethiopia’s slightly higher altitude is better for strength training. His track work is still done in Iten, Kenya, where he lives in the apartment next door to Jake.

Zane believes a major part of his half marathon success can be traced back to September 2013 – a month after he finished 14th in the 5000m final at the Moscow World Championships. 

It was then that he joined a 25-strong training group that includes the past two winners of the prestigious Dubai Marathon: world junior marathon record holder Tsegaye Mekonnen (2:04:32) and Hayle Lemi Berhanu (2:05:28).

Zane struggled to keep up in the first year, but he came out of the 2014 track season a different athlete.

“Most sessions I now often finish in, maybe, the front four,” explains Zane, who dies his hair black and has the nickname Elvis. “It gave me pretty good confidence knowing I could keep up with guys who have run low 59-minutes for the half-marathon and 2:04 for the marathon.”

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Zane Robertson in the thick of the 5000m action at the Moscow world champs in 2013, where he finished 14th 

Hard work

There are no short cuts. The self-coached Kiwi, who counts Haile Gebrselassie as one of his neighbours when he lives in Ethiopia, trains twice a day and covers between 140 and 180km every week

One of his road sessions is a 4x6km. This is run at a 3:05 p/km pace for the first 5km, concluding with a blistering final km at 2:50. The recovery between reps is a km run at a “moderate” 3:20.

Precious metal

Setting PBs in the 1500m, mile, 3000m (indoors and out) and two miles in 2014 represented a great year for Zane. But the undoubted highlight was winning 5000m bronze at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games behind Kenyan duo Caleb Ndiku and Isiah Koech.

“I hope to use this confidence to help me reach my next goal to break 13 minutes for the 5km,” he says.

“It [winning bronze] meant all of the hardship had finally paid off. It is something I‘ve been aiming for the whole of my life.”

Mental battle

Competing in Marugame earlier this, month Zane ran 59:47 to become only the fourth non-African to run a sub-one-hour half marathon on a non-downhill course, finishing second to Kenyan Paul Kuira, who recorded the same time.

“The half-marathon really is a mental game because everyone in the race is as tired as you,” explains Zane. “I was being dropped with 3km to go but I realised the gap wasn’t any bigger than 20 or 30m [on race leader Kenyan Paul Kuira]. I just said to myself: ‘I’ve not got a lot to lose today and I’m going to make a real go of it right now’. It really is a gutsy event.”