The new Rotorua Marathon champion, Mel Brandon, hasn’t had the most conventional running career. But she’s found her stride at 44, making her three kids proud.
Mel Brandon took up running when she was 37, to help her navigate her way through a marriage break-up. And then she just kept going.
There have been multiple hurdles to stride over along the road. Before she could even start pounding the pavements in earnest, she had to undergo surgery that allowed her to run.
She’s managed to hold down a full-time job (and recently, two) and raise her three kids as a single mum. She takes them to their sports – while fitting in 100km a week of her own training to be a competitive marathon runner.
And now at 44, Brandon is not just out there taking part – she’s winning. Her latest victory, the first woman home in the Rotorua Marathon on Saturday.
And while she had four medals draped around her neck at the race prizegiving, Brandon’s ultimate reward is to make her teenage children proud and be an inspiration to them – and to other mums.
“The kids are my ultimate driver. I think about them while I’m running, particularly when I’m racing,” says the mother of two daughters, aged 15 and 13, and an 11-year-old son. “They’re my mental pick-me-up when I’m struggling; they give me that extra push to keep going.
“I just want to make them proud. There have been sacrifices, like evenings when I could be watching a movie with them and I’m out doing an hour’s run. Or occasionally dinner is late and their sweaty mum is trying to throw food on the table.
“But my eldest told me recently: ‘You are a really good role model for us, Mum. I want to be a strong, independent woman like you when I grow up’. That bowled me over.”
This is her seventh year running, and Brandon has never had more success. This year, she’s set new personal best times over 10km and the half marathon and won the first ultramarathon she’d ever entered.
She puts her success down to still having “young running legs” that haven’t been worn out over the years. But her age gives her another advantage.
“For these longer events, you need mental resilience and life experience to push through when things start getting a little dark out there,” she laughs.
Her winning time over 42.2km in Rotorua, of 3h 00m 08s, was a way off her goal to better her personal best time of 2h 53m 22s (set winning last year’s Wairarapa Marathon).
“But getting a win here is still quite amazing,” she says afterwards. She also won her 40-44 age group, and the national masters championship with her performance.
Although she was late discovering running in adulthood, Brandon reckons she must have had some natural talent. She was the fastest girl at Ngaio School in Wellington – a school with a long running heritage – and competed for the Onslow Amateur Athletic Club as a kid across all the sprint distances.
But when she got to Wellington Girls’ College, netball became her No.1 sport and athletics fell away. “But even then, I was never really encouraged to be sporty, and I don’t recall having any role models in sport,” she says.
She headed overseas at 20, and stayed active by biking, hiking and kayaking. But it wasn’t until after her third child was born she got serious about her fitness and wellbeing.
Before she could run, she needed surgery to repair “serious damage” she suffered having children. “There was no chance of me running before I had that surgery,” she says.
“After my first half marathon I was just grateful to finish and have nothing go wrong, so I saw that as a major accomplishment.”
Brandon started by running the Round the Bays in Wellington with work colleagues. She enjoyed the training so much, she carried on and realised she hadn’t lost the ability to run fast as she had as a kid.
When she decided to become competitive, there were more hurdles. “It was really hard – I had a full-on job,” she says.
“The kids were younger, and I had them week about, so on the weeks I had them, I’d do no training, and when they weren’t with me, I’d run. It was good for me to fill up the gaps when they weren’t there, being proactive and not pining for them.
“Then as I got more into it, the week on, week off training wasn’t really conducive, so I got a treadmill in the lounge, which the kids thought was pretty neat.”
Her daughters now live with her fulltime, and there are different ‘teenage challenges’ to tackle.
Brandon doesn’t train in the mornings, because she’s doing the school drop-offs on her way to work. “So it’s either a quick run at lunchtime, or when my son is at football practice for an hour, I’ll do a speed session. And I fit in longer runs at the weekend if I have the older one looking after the youngest one,” she says.
All of her children were runners “when they were young enough to be directed into doing things”, so there were four the yellow singlets of the Wellington Scottish club side-by-side on the washing line. But now the kids play team sports – her daughters in netball and her son in football.
Brandon loves how her girls will send photos to their friends when their Mum wins a race.
“Life isn’t all roses; we have the typical teenage pushbacks. But overall, they’re all pretty proud of me,” she says.
One of her racing highlights was breaking three hours in the New York Marathon in 2019. Her dream would be to run a sub 2h 50m marathon.
She’d hope to do that in Rotorua this time, but she had faced a different obstacle in the lead-up. During her four-week training programme, Brandon was transitioning to a new job: “So I was doing two jobs for a while there… it wasn’t the best,” she says.
She moved from head of people and culture at a health insurance company to working for Wētā Workshop in the same role. Not only is she inspired by their award-winning creativity, she has new trails to run around the Wellington Harbour waterfront from Miramar.
Brandon is throwing herself straight into her next challenge, the Auckland Marathon on October 30. It’s the day before her 45th birthday, so she couldn’t turn down the chance to run.
She enjoyed her first ultramarathon in July – the WUU2K, a race that ties all the city’s trails together. Brandon tackled the full 62km event and set a new course record of 6h 31m 37s.
“I’m not a spring chicken, but my body held up better on the trails than it does on the road,” she says.
“I’d love to do more trail running. I think I’ll have one last crack at a PB on the road, but then trail is where my future running lies.”
Brandon doesn’t have to look far to find role models still running in their later years. One is her clubmate Michele Allison; now in her mid-60s she’s one of Wellington Scottish’s greats. She’s also the sister of the late Bernie Portenski (a Kiwi legend who ran the Rotorua Marathon 33 times in her 114-marathon career; taking up running aged 30 and setting world age-group records).
The other is Sally Gibbs, the 59-year-old who holds a slew of world masters records for distances between 1500m and 10km, who took up running in her mid-40s. (Gibbs was the first sportswoman profiled in LockerRoom back in 2018, when she successfully defended the national women’s 10km road title at 54).
“My goal would be to still be running in my 60s,” Brandon says. “I might not still be at the top of my game, but I’d want to be feeling fit and eating well.” And being happy.
* Mel Brandon won the Rotorua Marathon almost three minutes ahead of Courtney Pratt of New Plymouth, with Billie-Lee Haresnape of Piha six minutes behind the winner in third. Michael Voss overcame cramp to win an unprecedent hat-trick of Rotorua titles in the men’s race, crossing the line in 2h 29m 21s.