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Athlete Profile - Mel Burke

Mel Burke – no challenge too tough

Back in 2008 BikeNZ came up with an idea to uncover womens cycling talent with a programme they called “Power to the Podium”.  100 or so applicants applied from a wide range of relevant sports.  All were put through a series of tests to ascertain whether any had the physiology to be potential medallists on the track in 2012.  The hope was to uncover an athlete that showed untapped potential.  Perhaps they weren’t even involved with cycling yet.

 

One of the few such athletes to be uncovered was Aucklands Melanie Burke.  Such were her numbers in some of the tests that they invited her to undergo further testing on the track in Invercargill.  Having never ridden a track bike, she was at a bit of a disadvantage and failed to progress any further.  Obviously she had some talent on a bike though and BikeNZ put her in touch with me to see if we could get her competitive on the road or time trial.

 

So how does an unknown suddenly find herself vying for a place in the NZ track squad?  Clearly there was more to this young ladies ability.  When I asked what relevant athletic history Mel had, her reply took quite a while.  You see, she’s been preparing for cycling in a way, since she was 13 years old.  It was back in 1993 that Mel started competing in Rowing.  She wouldn’t be the only rower to take to cycling or triathlon with success but as a rower she was pretty accomplished.  In 2002 and 2003 Mel would finish 4th and 5th respectively in the Rowing World Championships in the Four.  Along with a handful on NZ titles Mel had done it all in rowing.  When an announcement was made that NZ wouldn’t be sending anything bigger than a pair / double to the Olympics, Mel looked elsewhere for a competitive outlet.

Mel started running immediately and ran her first marathon at Rotorua in 2005 where she finished an incredible 2nd.  It was obvious that the huge aerobic capacity she had built up through years of training in the boat had transferred pretty smartly to endurance running.  Over the next 3 years Mel would win 3 major NZ marathons including the Rotorua Marathon in 2006 & the NZ champs in 2007.  Other outstanding results included a 3rd at the Aussie champs and 26th in the Elite race at the New York Marathon in 2007.

It was after the Power to the Podium that Mel came to me for some help with her cycling.  One of the things that struck me immediately was her propensity to train hard.  I had tailored a programme for her to take into account the fact that she worked full-time and had limited time to put in.  What I didn’t immediately realise was that she was doing my training and also keeping up her run training on top of that….and working.  Most people would have burnt out on such a regime but Mel seemed to thrive.

Mel made an impact on the Auckland cycling scene pretty quickly, winning her first Auckland title in the Time Trial in early 2009.  Mel had her initial successes in Time Trials where tactics played no part.  Nothing in her two previous sports had prepared her for the complex strategizing that goes on in a cycling road race.  How could it be that the strongest person didn’t always win?  After a season of racing as often as she could, Mel soon got to grips with this and in 2010 won the NZ Club National Champs road race by timing her late race attack perfectly to hold off the other contenders.

By this time Mel could boast something few New Zealanders can.  She had won National titles in 3 different disciplines.  Most would be pretty content with their success after reaching that milestone.  I mentioned earlier that Mel was continuing some run training in addition to the cycling and so it was of little surprise to me when she suggested she wanted to target Duathlon in 2009.  Off very little running at all, Mel won her 4th NZ title in a fourth discipline by winning the 2009 National Duathlon Championships.  She entered the race as an unknown but really turned heads when she stormed home with a huge winning margin.  Since then we have divided Mels focus between cycling and duathlon and she has excelled at both.

Her most recent goal of competing in the World Long Course Duathlon championships was perhaps her most challenging goal yet.  Mel approached me with the idea in the 2nd half of 2011.  With only 3 months to fully focus on it we were determined to do everything right and get her to the start line in Zofingen Switzerland in the best shape of her life.  Zofingen is the mother of all Duathlons.  Contemplate this.  10k Run – 150k mountainous road Cycle – 30k hilly Run.  With a predicted winning time of over 7hrs for the women it was by far the longest event Mel had ever done.

After winning her 3rd successive NZ Duathlon title and putting in plenty of extra hours on the bike and run training, Mel pulled it all together to turn up on the start line in Switzerland quietly confident but also aware that she was stepping into the unknown.  Not knowing much about her competition was her advantage.  Them not knowing much about her, proved to be their disadvantage.

Finishing the first run up with the leading pack of females, Mel came out of transition in the top 5, and quickly hit the front early on in the bike.  From the front she built up a big lead and by the end of the ride had a good buffer.  The field behind her was stacked with experience.  Erica Csomor is something of a legend at Zofingen having won the race no less than 7 times and she was one of the chasers who must have been thinking that the kiwi had gone too hard on the bike.

Mel confided in me that she went through all sorts of hell on that last run.  She came to a walk a few times just to get to the finish.  The possibility of finally winning a world title after being at the top of 4 different sports must have motivated her to push her body to new limits.  All the years of hard slog had paid off.  Mel held off the field to win by almost 4mins and become the 2011 World Long Distance Duathlon champion.

One now wonders what this lady can’t do when she puts her mind to it.  I’m sure I am not the first person to ask her recently, “Can you swim?” Watch this space.

 

Aaron Strong

Supercoach