Melissa Moon winning the 2010 Empire State Building Run-up (© Getty Images)
Over the course of a running career that began in the early 1990s, New Zealander Melissa Moon amassed 21 national titles, and made national teams for the World Half Marathon Championships, World Cross Country Championships and World University Games.
But it wasn't until she took on another challenge - running up and down mountain trails, and later up staircases that lead to the observation decks of the world’s tallest buildings, non-traditional venues that today’s runners in lockdown are beginning to embrace - that Moon finally found her true running calling.
"It was my unexpected third place at the 1997 World Mountain Running Championships in the Czech Republic that confirmed to me mountain running was the discipline in athletics I wanted to concentrate on,” Moon recalls.
Moon competed at the World University Games in Catania that August, finishing fifth in the 10,000m in 34:38.88 and seventh over 5000m in 16:13.06, careers bests at the time for the then 28-year-old. She was then persuaded to stay on in Europe for another week to compete at the WMRA event in Male Svatonovice, a small town in the Czech Hradec Kralove region near the Krkonose mountain range.
"I was truly humbled by what my body and mind had to endure during the race," she remembers. "I had never experienced anything quite like it and was determined to get to grips with it. I also loved the culture of the mountain runners, just like an extended family, and I felt energised in the mountain and villages of Europe.”
Back-to-back world titles
At the World Champions a year later in Dimitile on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion, Moon finished third again but it was two years later, after a fourth place finish at the World Championships in Bergen, Germany, that she vowed to prepare differently for the 2001 event.
"How could I possibly be at my best after 30 hours of travel from New Zealand to Europe, six days out from the race of my life? Things had to change," she said.
When she lined up at the start of the 2001 championships in Arta Terme, Italy, she knew she was prepared.
"I was acclimatised, having arrived in Europe five weeks early and tougher both mentally and physically due to the build-up races I had competed in, in Susa and Kitzbuhel. I had also spent many days training over the Arta Terme course understanding every aspect of it. I was determined to win.”
Her preparation paid off. She clocked 38:02 over the 8.55km course with 590m rise, 15 seconds clear of rising Czech star Anna Pichrtova.
"The sense of relief when I did win was indescribable," she said. "A huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I felt a euphoria knowing that I had finally achieved the ultimate result I could in my chosen area of athletics. I buzzed on that feeling for months after."
She successfully defended her title the following year in Girdwood, Alaska, with a dominating run, covering the 7.7km course with 600m rise in 39:02. There her closest competitor was 39 seconds back.
“Defending my world title in Alaska was tremendously satisfying for different reasons. One was handling the expectations as a previous winner and the unexpected snow. Also having to find a new pair of shoes to race in one hour before the start so as not to slip in the snow. It was about keeping a sense of composure in adversity that was a highlight."
When Moon was at the height of her mountain running career, she found good company with her Kiwi compatriots. Around the same time, Jonathan Wyatt, who would collect six world titles and win the WMRA Grand Prix eight times, was dominating men’s mountain running and Kate McIlroy and Maree Bunce were also finding success on the women’s side.
"The mid nineties and early 2000s were a fantastic time for New Zealand mountain runners. We had a great team spirit and it was very motivating to see the black singlet and silver fern on the dais. Jono Wyatt gave us the opportunity to experience our national anthem many times. He was a great ambassador for the sport and New Zealand."
From mountain summits to building tops
With runners in lockdown in parts of the world at the moment, stair running has experienced a rise in interest. Moon, who twice won the Empire State Building Run-up in New York City, a race that rises 320 vertical metres, has plenty of tips she's glad to share with aspiring run-up runners.
"In the twilight of my career I needed a new physical and mental challenge and thought racing up the world’s tallest building would be a great idea." That was the Taipei 101 run in 2005, a race over 2046 steps to the building’s 91st floor, where she finished second.
Her first Empire State climb victory came five years later.
“The iconic Empire States Building was the one to win," she said. "1,576 steps, 86 floors - and one of the toughest challenges I have ever undertaken.”
In 2005 she clocked 13:13 and won by 40 seconds. She won again in 2012 clocking 12:39.
"Your Heart rate sky rockets to 170 beats per minute, your lungs are burning and the lactic acid plays havoc with the body. Specific training is essential and I was fortunate to have access to Wellington’s tallest building to allow my body to adapt.
Her advice to those running on stairs now?
"My advice is run two stairs at a time and use the handrails for momentum."
Retired, but still a runner
Moon retired from competitive athletics in 2014 but continues to run five to six times a week with long runs of about two hours. In 2015 she coached and guided Maria Williams, a blind runner, at the London Marathon.
Throughout her running career, Moon was a secondary school teacher working with special needs students. Her post-running career life has continued along a similar path. A decade ago she trained as a massage therapist and now works with the elderly, patients with physical disabilities such as Multiple sclerosis, those suffering from dementia and those who have experienced a stroke. She also volunteers at a soup kitchen in Wellington to help the city's homeless. Last year she returned to New York City for the Empire State Building Run-up to raise funds and awareness for the New Zealand Spinal trust.
She also keeps a race to-do list whose entries include China's Great Wall Marathon, a new race, and one she's already run in Italy's Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.
"In 2021 it will be 20 years since I won my first world title, the greatest race of my life, and I plan to go back to Arta Terme to have a little jog over the course, reminisce and celebrate!"
Kirsty Reade and Bob Ramsak for World Athletics