By Paul Titus
As a new wave of weight conscious walkers, gym goers, and Lycra-clad cyclists crowds our parks and streets, it is worth remembering that fitness fanatics are nothing new.
In the past they were known as harriers, and harrier clubs were a dynamic element of church life in many cities.
At one time Auckland, Palmerston North, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch and Timaru all had Methodist harrier clubs. Today just two remain in the race – Christchurch Methodist Harrier Club and Wesley Athletic and Harrier Club in Auckland. Each of them is a lively group that offers up a different mix of social and competitive running.
Club president Bruce McCallum says the Christchurch Methodist Harriers came into being at a meeting in the parlour of Durham Street Methodist Church in 1929. In that year Christchurch Anglicans also formed a harriers club, whereas the Presbyterians and Baptists had formed theirs some years before.
In both Christchurch and Auckland the Bible Class Movement played a big part in the development of harriers, which encompasses cross country and road running.
"Today our club membership totals about 35," Bruce says. "The season runs for six months from the beginning of April.
"We have a varied programme. There are a number of inter-club races and relays for those with a competitive streak, and a dozen or so runs from members’ homes on Saturday afternoons, followed by an afternoon tea.
"These days most people in our club are in their 40s, 50s or 60s. We are not as young as we used to be but we enjoy the fellowship of being in each other’s company when we meet on a Saturday afternoon, and we come with keen and serious rivalry on the day of a race."
Among the milestones in the Christchurch Methodist harriers’ history is entering a team in the first Takahe to Akaroa relay in 1935. This prestigious race continues to draw competitors from throughout NZ.
In 1962, the first Governors Bay to Lyttelton road race was held. Christchurch Methodist was the organiser of the race then, and it still is.
In 1994 the membership of Christchurch’s Presbyterian harrier club dropped to a critical level, and they merged with the Methodist club. The Methodist name was retained though some Presbyterian cups and trophies are still used.
Long-standing Methodist harriers remember when the NZ Methodist Championships were the highlight of the running season. The national event was first held in Wellington in 1947, and the last of them was in 1980.
One of those who remembers the national Methodist champs is president of Wesley Harriers Ian Sussex. The Auckland club is nearly as old as its Christchurch rival. It began in 1933.
Unlike many other church-based harrier clubs, Wesley has gone on to become a serious competitive outfit. A number of nationally ranked runners and triathletes, including 1960 Olympic bronze medallist Barry Magee, have been affiliated with the club.
Its emphasis on competitive racing has given Wesley another point of difference from other church clubs – its membership is getting younger. Two thirds of the club’s 60 current members are juniors, aged 10 to 19.
"1993 was our 60th anniversary and at that time we had about 130 regular runners. After that our numbers declined, and by 2000 we were thinking of closing down. Rather than do that, we reinvented ourselves," Ian says.
"We established a website and made a broad appeal to recruit people. Many of those who joined are not church goers but they appreciate the family based style of the club.
"A lot of the credit for our growth goes to Andrew Haigh. Andrew was a New Zealand national junior road champion and now has a scholarship to study and run in the US. He encouraged young people to get involved in Wesley and really changed the profile of the club."
While the membership of Wesley Harriers has extended beyond the church, Ian says, the club retains Christian values.
"We are known as a church-based club and we hang onto our core beliefs. For the past 20 years we have met in the hall of Epsom Methodist Church. We have meetings and our end of the year prize-giving there. Sometimes we hold a social run from there but most of the time we are away racing."
Among the recent successes of Wesley Harriers are winning the 14 and under Turnco Shield at the 2007 Auckland Junior Race Series and the national junior men’s Road Relay Championship in 2005.
Ian says Wesley Harriers is currently among the top 10 clubs in NZ and it intends to be in the top three.