Matt Baxter's pre-race plan worked out perfectly on Saturday as he ran away with the national secondary schools senior cross-country title in Auckland.
Not wanting to get caught in the bunch, the top New Plymouth Boys' High School runner put the pace on early to clear out from his rivals.
He was never headed, going on to win by 22 seconds from Tauranga Boys' High School's Michael Sutton in a time of 19 minutes 33 seconds for the 6km course.
The victory also ended a run of three successive second placings at the championships since he was pipped for first in the junior boys' race back in 2009.
"It was certainly a huge relief," he said yesterday. "The pressure had built up quite a bit, so it was great to finally get one. Putting in all that training for the one event, it was quite overwhelming at the end to have it all pay off."
Baxter has been in superb form in recent weeks, easily landing the Taranaki secondary schools title before leading his school team from the front to win the Super 8 Shield in Palmerston North last month.
Despite his favouritism for the national title, Baxter knew how fickle the sport could become if he was to get tangled up in a bunch on the St Kentigern College course.
"I was always planning on going out hard at the start because there was a bend a couple of hundred metres from the start and there was no way I wanted to get caught up in the traffic," he said. "From there I held the front and held it the whole way."
On a day when a large number of competitors were struggling with the cold, Baxter fought through the pain barrier for a large part of the race.
"I felt pretty confident in myself, knowing if I ran well I could beat anybody, and coming to the end of the first lap I knew I had a decent lead on the second guy."
With his two closest competitors running together, Baxter also knew he just had to keep digging in because he felt the pair would push each other to reach him.
It was a performance that thrilled his coach, Karen Gillum-Green, who was on hand to see her charge pick up his first national cross-country title.
"It [his performance] was up there with the best of his career runs," she said. "He is very competitive, so in that regard it probably wasn't as challenging as some of his races in the past but it certainly didn't stop him from running an honest race."
Gillum-Green said that while they had planned for Baxter to peak for the schools race, she believed he could maintain his form for upcoming assignments, which include the national cross-country championships, the Australian schools championships in Adelaide and the national road running championships in September.
It was a view shared by Baxter, who at 17, will compete in the men's 19 years grade at both senior nationals.
"I'm sure I'll have a week off somewhere but it seems like a continuous circuit at the moment and I'm pretty sure I haven't got close to reaching my potential yet," he said.
"Even comparing where I am now to where I was last year, there has been a huge improvement and hopefully I can keep that going."
He marked that improvement down to maturing, in body and mind, as well as the increase in training set down by Gillum-Green.
Boys' High manager Paul Dominikovich was naturally delighted for Baxter after seeing first hand how close he had been to a national title in recent years.
"Matt is a sensational runner and it was a memorable moment for Boys' High to have a national champion in such a demanding sport," he said.
"Matt has led our large team brilliantly and has been an inspiration and role model to all of them."
As well as Baxter's success, Gillum-Green also had other reasons to celebrate as her three-person junior New Plymouth Girls' High School team of Madeleine Roughan (sixth), Ellie Tvrdeich (23rd), and Arwen Vernon (36th) won gold.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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