Roy - A Legend, A Part Of Our History

Aims For 1000 Runs

By Keith Lofthouse, July 2010

ONE of the great joys of being one of the too few diehards who run cross country each week is that we are doing something out of the ordinary in the minds of the four million people we share this city with.

If we are not envied, we should be. We are not ordinary people and, of all our members, no one is more extraordinary than Roy McKenzie - with apologies to our 70-plus master flier, Ted Paulin, a world champion, but more commonly known around the club as a “freak.”

Roy, 61, has officially run more than 700 races with the club, although it seems our records haven’t been able to keep pace with him, because he reckons it’s more like 800 since he first joined in 1969.

Whatever the number is, Roy is a true VCCL legend; a phenomenon, and we estimate that he has raced over 6400 kilometres with us in over 40 years, a distance, equivalent to the stretch between Sydney and Perth and back, that most ordinary people wouldn’t walk in a lifetime.

Roy, who never set out to be a runner, admitted that he couldn’t sprint to save himself.

“At school I’d always run dead last in 100 metres and 50 metres sprints,” he recalled.

“Like most kids, I wanted to play football or cricket, but most of those sports were played on Saturdays and my folks were Seventh Day Adventists, so on a Sunday, running was about the only thing left to me.”

“I remember that when we first ran a mile race at school, I rocketed home to run third and later won a church cross country race when I was 16. I don’t think I realised it then, but I guess they were the first indications that my fate was sealed.”

Like most country boys, Roy left his home town (Shepparton) when he was 20 to try his luck in the big smoke.

His life partner Lyn, said: “Roy worked with Bob Petrie (VCCL Life Member: deceased) and Bob knew that Roy liked to run. Bob invited him down to Yarra Bend Park one Sunday for a run, and I was his girlfriend, still in high school, and tagged along.”

Roy had to wait seven years for his first win in professional ranks at Caulfield Park in 1977, but he won two others that year, and was, as they say, well on his winning way… despite the odd miscalculation or two.

“I had a chance to win Norm Charles in 1977, but ran third to Frank Neill,” Roy said, with a grimace or remorse. “Frank will argue the point until he’s blue in the face, but I’m convinced I’d have beaten him if it wasn’t for my trainer who wanted me to take my foot off the pedal, because he was getting me ready for a club marathon at the time.”

“I pulled up, in effect. Fancy throwing away a Norm Charles! It’s haunted me all these years, because I’ve never done that before or since.”

Roy sacked his coach on the spot, even before that not so special marathon.

“In those days, the club used to run a marathon during the season…eight times around Albert Park Lake, with a bit more added on. But I was never a marathoner and tenth was the best I ever did.”

In 1983, however, Roy managed to redeem himself, finally putting the ghosts to rest by winning Norm’s great event when it was held at Selby, “up Mile High Hill.”

Again, Roy almost threw it away.

“You really had to work hard up that damned hill and I was never a strong climber. When I got to the top I was a goner and told Ann Neill (Frank’s better half, ironically) that I couldn’t go on. Ann yelled out that I’d better look behind because I had it shot to pieces. Without realising it I’d burnt everybody off up the hill and won, I think, pretty easily.”

Roy’s most satisfying win came soon after his 40th birthday at Murchison in 1989 when a field of 62 lined up for the 16th running of Doug Tuhan’s prestigious race, in which club stalwarts Jim McLure and Tony Rendina also finished in the top 10.

“My father had died of cancer only the month before and Murchison (near Shepparton) was like a homecoming. I did it for dad, but John Toleman (Club Patron) had runners in the race - obviously wanted one of his boys to win - and served it up to me passing the Caravan Park.”

“‘You’re in a position to win this McKenzie’, he called out to me ‘but you haven’t got the heart’. I reached the goalposts and John Cleland was still in front of me and there was another runner from Healesville. I was stuffed, but I found just enough to win by second. I was a sick and sorry sight afterwards and it was all Lyn could do to keep me on my feet.”

I’m sure Roy won’t mind me mentioning this, but he is never a picture of sartorial splendour after a race, muck splattered all over his face, wearing the froth of battle like a badge of honour.

But Roy, forever and always does his best, and runs on courage, through the pain of dicky knees and senior-citizen niggles. The spray on his face is the unfortunate bi-product of a chronic bronchial condition, and still one of the reasons why he continues to run; otherwise, he’d seize up!

We run, of course, for the thrill of competition and the adrenaline that pumps in the midst of a great contest.

I asked Roy, innocently, about the most memorable battle of his 40 year career, and I was honoured and flattered that he nominated Princes Park and the George Perdon ten-miler of August 15, 2004.

“No, no Roy,” I protested, “Surely in 800 races you’ve faced a tougher challenge than that!”

But he could not be dissuaded. “We ran off the same mark. You knew you had to beat me to win and I knew I had to beat you.”

“We were virtually stride for stride for about three laps, but I knew you always had a kick at the finish and would outsprint me. So I took the risk, and went as hard as I dared on the fourth lap, hoping you wouldn’t stick with me.”

“You backed off, probably expecting to catch me again in the last lap. But I broke your heart that day I think, and damned near broke mine.”

(For the record, five past winners of the Perdon competed in that race: David Spackman (1999) was third, Colin Davis (2001) was fourth, Jim Berrington (1997) was sixth, and also Ted Paulin (2003) and Sean Quilty (2007).

Before Murchison, 2010, most of us might have thought that McKenzie, the crock who is crook in the chest, who had run a 35.15 10km on that very course in his prime, had won his last race.

Roy was certainly thinking along those lines too…but there he was, lining up for the 37th Murchison on August 1. He had not figured in the top 10 all season and again, he was expected to finish amongst the “also rans.”

The wail of the banshee, in the formidable shape of Lyn McKenzie, shrieking “GO ROY!”, was deafening as her beloved steamed onto the footy oval, puffing and a wheezing, “going up and down on the one spot”, according to Lyn, but still with a big enough lead to win a Melbourne Cup.

Somehow Roy had managed to win his hometown derby for a second time. Lyn was shaking with…hysteria, really…and in no fit condition to fulfil her selfless but vital duties of recording the runners’ numbers as they finished, in order.

And Roy was as surprised as anyone. Modestly, he said: “I think I got lucky that day. For some reason, most of the runners who were performing well in Melbourne didn’t turn up and the Bendigo and Shepparton numbers were down.”

This writer couldn’t help but remind Roy of the day he didn’t win at Murchison in 2004.

Again we were off the same mark. “Roy knows his way around this course,” I thought, “so I’ll follow him.”

I picked the one and only time in 30-odd starts on his home track that Roy managed to go the wrong way - a substantial detour the size of a rural block - and I reckon it cost us a psychologically shattering 400 metres!

We nearly lost him before, you know, in 1995 at a place called Blue Lake at South Morang, the scene of another unforgettable day in the life of the VCCL.

The young blokes (including Roy’s son Aaron, who raced with the club for some years) were cooling off afterwards, using a rope to swing out from the walls surrounding the lake and drop into the water several metres below.

In his late 40s then, Roy wasn’t quite up to the feats of Tarzan and realised he was in trouble, unable to swing out far enough from the wall to drop safely.

But he let go anyway. “Head first, but twisting sideways, I thumped hard into the water, blacked out for a second or two and went completely numb on one side.”

“The young guys were roaring with laughter at the silly old fart, but I was really dazed and could hardly breathe. Luckily Aaron knew that I wasn’t play-acting and hauled me out. It’s not too dramatic to say that I could’ve drowned.”

To this day, and forever, Roy is one of the VCCL’s most decorated runners – winner of the club aggregate in 1977 and 1984, second in 1983, third in ’89, ’96, ’99 and 13 races in all.

For all but a handful of those 800 or so runs, the ever-dependable Lyn has been steadfast at his side, roaring encouragement along with, for about 10 of those 40 years, Digger the Dog, who was only slightly more vocal.

Roy thinks he might have won his last race at unlucky 13, but I’m not so sure. He certainly hasn’t run his last.

“I’d like to make it to 1000 races,” Roy murmured, betraying just a hint of doubt in those words, “but I’d be well into my 70s by then.”

Now, I know Roy; and Lyn knows him better: “In one word, as a person,” she reflected, “he is kind. In one word, Roy, as a runner, is committed.”

He’ll get to 1000, all right. And he’ll be resolutely “committed”, once he gets the sniff of a feat that no one in the club’s lifetime will ever repeat.