Fly me to the moon
On the comeback trail after battling injury, burn-out and loss of her coach, mountain runner Melissa Moon is looking to the support of a home crowd to regain her world title in Wellington this month
Part-way through a gruelling 16km world championship race on France's rugged volcanic Reunion Island, mountain runner Melissa Moon seriously considered faking an asthma attack.
As the dizziness and nausea of altitude sickness set in, the devilish thought rose in her like the urge to scream and, once there, refused to budge.
Looking back, the diminutive Wellingtonian says that particular race in 1998 proved to be a turning point in her career. Never before had she tackled such a tough event or wrestled with such a strong desire to quit. It brought home the fact her chosen sport was as much about conquering the mental challenge as it was about mastering the physical.
“I felt so dreadful, I just wanted out. But something in me kept going, something kicked in. I battled my mind all the way and learned so much from that experience.”
In testament to her natural talent and sheer determination, Melissa rallied to finish third, making her mark on an event she has come to dominate. Since then, she’s won the world championship twice – first in Italy in 2001 and then in Alaska in 2003.
Until recently, mountain running was a fairly obscure sport in Australasia. Originating in the highlands of northern England and Scotland, it’s characterised by gaspingly steep uphill climbs and daunting ankle-breaking descents, set in some of the world’s most spectacular surroundings.
But this year, Melissa will have the hometown advantage when she sets out to regain her crown at the World Mountain Running Championships in Wellington on September 25.
It’s only the second time a world athletics event has been held in New Zealand and the 35-year-old will be not only pitting herself against a flock of international competitors but also local young pretender Kate McIlroy, one of our rising running stars. It’s a challenge Melissa is characteristically facing head on.
“Running’s taught me a lot about my head – particularly mountain running because it’s so hard. I know I have to rely on my mind to get me through tough times and it’s amazing what your mind can do when you have it in the right gear.”
In an 11-year career spanning athletics, cross country, stair racing, marathon running and mountain running, Melissa has notched up an impressive string of titles. In 2001, she was named New Zealand Sportswoman of the Year at the Halberg Awards and successfully defended her individual world stair racing championship victory in Kuala Lumpur.
Yet sitting in a Wellington café, swaddled in bright blue winter woollies with two bold arcs of eyeliner to match, Melissa goes largely unnoticed by the capital city’s mid-week latte drinkers. She gets neither the recognition nor the financial reward of other athletes of her calibre.
To her that’s simply another thing in life from which to draw strength. “It keeps you tough and it keeps you real. It’s not real to have it all laid on for you all the time and to be told how wonderful you are. When I roll up to the start line of a world championship, I know I’ve worked bloody hard to get there. I’ve raised the money and I’ve lugged all my own gear on and off planes. To me, the struggle is important. It keeps you on your toes and it keeps you focused.”
Growing up with three brothers in the Wellington suburb of Karori, Melissa was a plucky, determined child who excelled at sport in a less-than-sporty family (dad is lawyer and academic John Miller and her mum is writer Stephanie de Montalk).
At the age of 16, she dropped out of school and went overseas. She returned home seven years later, determined to pursue a career in running.
Her break came in 1994 when she was introduced by her then husband to John Davies, Olympic medal winner and coach of legendary Kiwi runners Dick Quax and Anne Ordane.
John took Melissa under his wing and remained her coach and mentor until his death from cancer at the age of 65.
“In those early days, my mind was open and ready for anything he could throw at me. I was so excited and there were so many goals to achieve.”
Soon Melissa was running an average of 160km a week, particularly in preparation for big competitions. By the end of her second year of training, she’d started notching up what would become an impressive haul of regional, national and international titles.
However, John’s death in 2003 triggered a personal crisis. Already devastated by his lost, she was then struck down by her first-ever injury, a hamstring strain.
In indomitable style, she fought back to win her second world title in Alaska, but a few months later, exhaustion and grief caught up with her. She had a “shocker” competing in the London Marathon and, by doing so, dashed all hopes of qualifying for the Athens Olympics later that year.
“It was burn out really. I was tired and just hit a wall. At the time, I thought, ‘I’m falling off a cliff here, what should I do?’”
Her answer was to take a year off to regroup. So, instead of scrambling up and down the lumpy terrain of Wellington’s Mt Kaukau and Mt Victoria several times a week, Melissa turned to the classroom.
Through part-time extramural study, Melissa has notched up diplomas in teaching, sport, and psychology, as well as post-graduate diplomas in special education and a master’s degree (with honours) in business studies.
She now teaches part-time, which gives her the flexibility to train, compete and study. She says working with children, especially kids with special needs, keeps her grounded. When travelling to race events, textbooks and assignments are wedged in her suitcase beside running shoes ready to open whenever she gets the chance.
It’s not the first time this naturally optimistic woman has turned a personal setback to her own advantage. Despite her obvious fitness and glowing good health, she has coeliac disease, a disorder that causes a chronic allergy to gluten.
So instead of the bread and pasta diet favoured by many runners, she’s fuelled by a gluten-free regime based on potatoes. Seeing it as an opportunity rather than a hurdle, she approached the New Zealand Vegetable and Potato Growers Federation (Vegfed) asking for sponsorship and has been powered by the humble spud ever since.
A more private challenge is her desire to have a family in the future – despite being single and suffering from endometriosis, a uterine disease which affects fertility.
“Having endometriosis means it will be harder for me. No doubt I’ll need a little help. But if things get too tricky, well, I’ll adopt. I’ve always wanted to be a mum and the thought of being a parent in my 40s is great. I’ll have done all the things I want to have done and be ready to give myself over to nurturing and supporting someone else. I really can’t think of a better time.”
Since taking time out from being a full-time athlete, Melissa’s discovered that running has developed into a fully-fledged passion rather than simply a competitive sport.
“I’m so glad to appreciate running in this way, I know a lot of top level runners don’t – it’s just about relentless training and the constant pursuit of success. Whereas now I train for so many different reasons. I just love it, it’s so good for the soul – particularly running in the bush. It’s the time that I feel most free in my life, where I feel that anything’s possible.”
This story was first published in NEXT magazine.