Emeritus Professor Roger Robinson: a life of academic and sporting success
Emeritus Professor Roger Robinson: a life of academic and sporting success
In his 35 years at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, Emeritus Professor Roger Robinson relished both his academic career in the Department of English (later the School of English, Film, Theatre, Media and Communication, and Art History) and competitive running at elite level. He has combined these passions to become a world-leading writer and commentator on running, sharing his time between New York and Wellington with his wife, celebrated women’s running pioneer Kathrine Switzer.
The Roger Robinson Scholarship for Student Runners has been established in his honour to support students who wish to combine academic and sporting excellence.
As a runner, Roger Robinson represented both England and New Zealand at world cross-country level but is best remembered for his achievements after the age of 40. He set age-group marathon records at Vancouver aged 41 (2:18:45), Boston aged 44 (2:20:15) and New York at 50 (2:28:01).
During his time at the University, Roger served as Head of Department, Dean, and Academic Vice-Chancellor, while managing to continue his running. He ran for New Zealand in the World Cross-Country Championship while Head of the Department of English, set a Masters’ record at the Boston Marathon while Dean of Humanities, and won World over-50 championships while researching his best-known work, the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature (1998).
He is still running at the age of 84 having carefully resumed training following two knee replacements. At the World Athletics Cross Country Championships held in Bathurst in February, Roger won the over 80 division by 61 seconds. This was the first event in history where Masters athletes ran on the same course as the world’s best cross-country athletes. Roger was delighted to race cross country again on his new knees, having previously won Masters titles in 1981 and 1989. He dedicated his run to his late running friends and those who could no longer run.
Image: Roger on the podium at the World Athletics Cross Country Championships in Bathurst.
Persistence pays off
Roger’s life of running success had inauspicious beginnings. As a small, skinny nine-year old he began running at London University’s Motspur Park—his local cinder track—as he was tired of always coming last in school sprint races. He reportedly ran three miles and then spent the afternoon in bed recovering. At school and university Roger loved cross-country and was enthusiastic and persistent but never more than a good B team runner. However, with training he began to improve and started to win races, including a Surrey County championship and record on the same cinder track. In 1966 he qualified for the England team for the international cross-country championship.
Image: Roger winning British Universities Cross-Country Championships, 1967.
A career in literary scholarship and teaching
Having won a scholarship to Queens’ College, Cambridge, Roger studied English literature. After three years of teaching he returned to complete a PhD on writer Henry Fielding. In 1968 Roger moved to New Zealand as a lecturer at the University of Canterbury. He was appointed as a professor in the English department at Victoria University of Wellington in 1975 where he developed the University’s offerings in modern and New Zealand literature.
Other achievements included initiating the University’s successful tourism degree programme, introducing journalism into the curriculum, and developing a set of English courses for the new third semester where he taught some outstanding students. Roger comments that his top priority was always high quality and original teaching, with fair and constructive assessment of students’ work.
Roger was committed to making expert literary scholarship and insight accessible to a wide audience and established the Journal of New Zealand Literature, as well as writing many books and essays. He was twice a judge for the national book awards and convened several major literary conferences, including Katherine Mansfield Centennial conferences in Wellington and Chicago.
A visit to the South Pacific in 1978 while researching the high school syllabus led Roger to a long-term interest in the literatures of that region, with work on Albert Wendt, Alistair te Ariki Campbell, and other indigenous writers, culminating in his acclaimed book Robert Louis Stevenson: His Best Pacific Writings.
In the 1980s Roger worked on the revision of New Zealand schools’ English curriculum and was appointed as an adviser to the Minister of Education.
At the beginning of 2006 Roger retired formally from teaching but he describes “fading slowly from my university career like the Cheshire Cat, until ending with the 2008–2009 trimester, and leaving only the grin behind.” When a student told him in 2009 that he had taught both her mother and grandmother, he felt it was a good time to stop teaching but continued to be actively involved with research and writing. He compiled a key collection on Katherine Mansfield, pioneered the study of regionalism in New Zealand writing with his Writing Wellington, and produced ground-breaking books, most notably the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature. That major work fulfilled his long-term commitment to making high-level scholarship accessible to a wide range of readers.
Joining a community of runners
When he arrived in Canterbury, Roger was welcomed by the running community and had some success despite being plagued by injuries and illnesses. A role as a stadium announcer in the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch was the first of many. Roger is known as a world-class announcer and television commentator at Olympic and Commonwealth Games and World Championships, a contribution continued as stadium announcer for the New Zealand Athletics Championships in Wellington in 2023.
Roger continued running when he arrived in Wellington, growing strong by training with friends on Wellington’s spectacular hills which he describes as “like being a bird.” He used to set out on lunchtime training sessions from the Recreation Centre with the informal company of runners of all academic and athletic levels, students as well as assorted academic and administrative staff. One winter run included two deans, a registrar, and three first-year students. Distinguished alumni who were in their time part of the University’s Athletics Club include Nobel Prize-winner Alan MacDiarmid, and former Chancellor Professor Tim Beaglehole.
Roger hopes to see this spirit of “all runners are equal” support and mentoring through the wide-ranging experience and expertise of club members continue for the scholarship recipients.
Running writing Robinson
Roger has always written about running, at first for school and club magazines, quickly graduating to freelance writing for newspapers. While at Victoria University of Wellington he began writing features and a regular column for the New Zealand Runner magazine, which maintained a large readership for 25 years. Roger saw this as a good way of repaying New Zealand running for making him so welcome.
Roger says, “I see my role as helping to find the words for something that is so important and creative in so many people’s lives, telling the stories and sharing the ideas that help them see how significant their own running can be.”
By 1980 Roger was running in America and wrote for Runner’s World, Running Times and occasionally the New York Times. His skills have earned three American awards for running journalism. His passion for running is matched by experience of the whole range of the sport and knowledge of its long history all put across in his famously lively and informative prose.
Of the nearly two dozen books that Roger has written over the years there are seven books on running. Heroes and Sparrows: A Celebration of Running, When Running Made History, and Running Throughout Time have been hailed as among the best running books of all time. Running and Literature brought together two of his passions, in a work of ground-breaking sports scholarship and vivid writing.
Roger comments “Running deserves the best writing. It can be as hard to write a good article as to run a good race, but there’s the same joy in doing it well.”
Image: Roger Robinson at age 82 starting a mile race with a mixed-age field. Photo credit: Rowan Greig/Wellington Scottish AC.
At the beginning of 2011, a group of Roger’s university colleagues conspired with many of his running and writing friends to produce the book Running Writing Robinson in his honour, published by Victoria University Press. With 52 contributions by some of the world’s best runners, writers, sports journalists, and literary scholars it is an extraordinary tribute.
He has also been an expert historian and scriptwriter on televsion documentaries. With his wife, the legendary Kathrine Switzer, he was commissioned to write the words for the lavishly illustrated 26.2 Marathon Stories (2006) and the dynamic duo are sought-after speakers.
Image: Roger and Kathrine Switzer on He Ara Kotahi bridge in Palmerston North. Photo credit David Unwin/Stuff.
Kathrine Switzer: iconic athlete who transformed women’s participation in sport
Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967. In that race she was physically attacked by an angry official who tried to rip off her bib number for officially registering and running in what was then considered a men’s only race. This was captured in an image that became one of Time-Life’s “100 Photos that Changed the World.”
Image: Boston marathon 1967. Photo credit: Boston Herald.
By the time she finished the race, which she was determined to do on her hands and knees if necessary, Kathrine had vowed to create opportunities for women in running, and to become a better athlete herself. She became a tireless advocate for female athletes and, after organising a global series of 400 women’s races in 27 countries, she was instrumental in making the women’s marathon an official event in the Olympic Games, first staged in 1984 in Los Angeles.
Kathrine continues to run, and completed the Boston Marathon again at age 70, on the 50th anniversary of her iconic run, finishing only 24 minutes slower than she did when she was 20. Roger completed his journalism duties in time to hug her at the finish line. This run launched her non-profit ‘261 Fearless’—named after her famous bib number—which supports women globally through running. Her efforts have empowered millions of women through the act of running. A training course for New Zealand coaches in the 261 programme will be held at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington in 2023.
Image: Kathrine running in Wellington. Photo credit: Hagen Hopkins.
The Roger Robinson Scholarship for Student Runners
Roger established the Roger Robinson Scholarship for Student Runners so that committed student runners could complete their university education in New Zealand on terms comparable to overseas sports scholarships. He points out that the COVID-19 crisis has shown that overseas study options may not always be available.
The scholarship is open to students studying for an undergraduate degree in any subject provided they meet the criteria of ‘competitive runner.’ It aims to provide a strong supportive pathway to enable talented runners to combine international sporting aspirations with serious academic aims and complete a high-quality tertiary education. At the same time, it will enable flexible everyday access to other runners, and the companionship and shared learning that are essential to a good academic community.
The scholarship was first awarded in 2020 to James Preston, then New Zealand under-20 record holder in the 800m, who has gone on to be New Zealand’s third fastest 800m runner, after Peter Snell and John Walker. Emma Douglass followed in 2021 and Mackenzie Morgan in 2022. Cross country and track and field distance runner Joshua Fitzgerald is the 2023 recipient. Josh is from Motueka High School and is coached by Julian Matthews, a 2016 New Zealand Olympian and 3:58 miler.
Image: Roger with inaugural scholarship recipient James Preston.
Emma says “receiving the Roger Robinson Scholarship for Student Runners was an amazing feeling. It felt like someone else really saw my talent and believed that it was worth something. That doesn’t happen very often.”
Mackenzie notes that Roger’s journey has been incredible. “It’s awesome to have a scholarship that is from someone who was in the same position as we were and can relate to the balance and student lifestyle.”
Image: Scholarship recipients Mackenzie Morgan and Emma Douglass.
Scholarship recipients meet up to run the mile
Roger and three scholarship recipients ran in different events at the Cooks Classic Meet one-mile championships in Whanganui in February. Joshua ran 4:25.53 in the under 20 age group and Mackenzie, aged 19, was fourth in the women’s mile championship in 5:00.49. James Preston won a silver medal with 3:59.44, becoming the first Roger Robinson Scholar to break the four-minute mile.
Joshua says “I had never met Roger Robinson before, nonetheless after seeing him race in Whanganui I admired his youthfulness with regards to not letting age tell you when to stop running. Something I hope to do in my later years.”
In March 2023, Roger as stadium announcer at the New Zealand National Champs was able to refer to Josh over the public address as “the holder of a Victoria University of Wellington scholarship for student runners.”
Image: Roger with 2023 recipient Joshua Fitzgerald at the Whanganui Cooks Classic Meet in Whanganui.
Roger has set up the scholarship aligned with a bequest to the University in his will. This means he can see the scholarship in action and meet the recipients who have benefitted from his generosity. “I’m relieved to note that it’s not yet the Roger Robinson Memorial Scholarship. I’ll enjoy actually knowing and cheering for the students, as well as supporting them at a university that always supported me,” he says.
The University is grateful to Roger for his enthusiastic contribution over the years—both towards teaching our English students and supporting our student athletes.