Former Auckland Marathon winner Oska Inkster-Baynes is re-emerging as a significant domestic endurance force following a torrid 12 months. The Cantabrian chats to Steve Landells to reflect upon his difficult journey and how a dietary overhaul has proved the catalyst for his transformation.
Describing quitting July’s Gold Coast Half-Marathon after 9km as one of the “loneliest and most humiliating” experiences of his life, the former two-time New Zealand Half-Marathon champion Oska Inkster-Baynes knew he needed to address some major issues to get his running career back on track.
For the preceding 12 months, the Christchurch-based athlete had felt lethargic and lacking in energy. A heart virus, which had weakened his immune system, was undoubtedly a key contributory factor.
But then after contracting chickenpox – for the second time in his life - just two weeks after his Gold Coast misery, this triggered the University of Canterbury athlete into seeking a solution for his ongoing medical issues.
Hope came in the form of nutritionist Jamie Scott, who completely overhauled Oska’s diet. Almost overnight the 27-year-old father-of-one felt like a new man. His energy levels restored, he made a triumphant competitive return by winning the Auckland Half-Marathon last month in 67:13.
“I feel like a totally different human being,” says Oska of the past four months working under Jamie’s dietary plan. “In general life, I’m much more engaged, I have better emotions and I’m sleeping through the night. All this has had a knock on effect to training where my jogging speed is around 20-25 seconds per kilometre quicker.”
Let the good times roll
Born and raised in Christchurch, Oska endured an at times challenging childhood but found redemption in running which provided him with discipline and stability. Introduced to the sport by multiple-winning New Zealand distance-running champion Phil Costley, Oska showed a clear sign of his rich potential when winning the 2012 New Zealand Half-Marathon title.
Under the wily coaching of Matt Ingram, in 2016 he enjoyed his finest season to date, securing a second New Zealand Half Marathon title in Christchurch and producing an eye-catching 42.2km debut by winning the Auckland Marathon in 2:20:36.
Yet with the benefit of hindsight he believes the first signs that his form might be starting to “unravel” came at the 2017 Gold Coast Half-Marathon. In Oceania’s most high valued road race he ran 66:03 for 12th when expected to run much quicker.
Several months later he again disappointed to run 66:54 for sixth at the Melbourne Marathon before bouncing back the following month to enjoy a much-improved performance at the 2017 New Zealand Half-Marathon Championships in Kerikeri when setting a PB of 65:01 to place a close second behind Craig Lautenslager
The heart of it
Yet his impressive performance in Northland was to prove a false dawn as just two weeks later he was to suffer an alarming incident at home.
“I recall one Saturday morning waking up in the middle of the night thinking I was going to have a heart attack,” he recalls. “It was pretty scary, although in true Kiwi-style I took a couple of Panadol and tried to go back to sleep.
“Later that morning I went to the gym and because I thought I’d tweaked my cartilage during the session I went to a sports doctor. It was then it was discovered I had viral pericarditis – which is an inflammation of the sac around the heart. Once the sac’s layers were inflamed it was rubbing against the heart making if feel like I was having a heart attack.
“I was relieved it was not anything more sinister but it was a little scary because I was a new dad (his daughter Indi was born in April 2016) and at the time I was also running a new business (he bought The Frontrunner – running shoes store - in 2016).”
Gold Coast pain
After taking a short break from running and wisely opting to skip the 2017-18 track season he managed to round into decent shape, clocking a handy 30:07 to win the Southern Lakes 10km in Wanaka in March.
Yet after stepping up the training mileage in preparation for another crack at the Gold Coast Half Marathon his body simply refused to co-operate leading to his painful exit from the prestigious Australian race.
“I still don’t think my body (at that stage) was quite right, and I probably didn’t treat the virus with enough respect,” he explains. “Ahead of Gold Coast I remember slipping into a great big Rift Valley of a hole. The week leading into Gold Coast, I felt so fatigued I was sleeping during the daytime for a couple of hours each day. Then on race day I could barely run at marathon pace, so after 9km I took off my singlet, dropped out of the race and jogged back to (wife) Katy and Indi.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Oska believes a number of factors had contributed to his worsening health. Without question becoming a new dad and starting a new business in 2016 piled on additional stress. Meanwhile, running had slipped down his list of priorities, meaning the “one percenters” like going for a massage were sometimes neglected.
“I was often so tired, I’d struggle to do jobs around the home for Katy,” he explains. “All I was doing was getting up, going for a run, going to work, going for a run and then going to bed again. That wasn’t normal because in the past I’d be much more comfortable juggling many things.”
The outbreak of chickenpox in July proved the catalyst for change as Oska with the support of Katy, sought help in the shape of nutritionist Jamie Scott – who immediately identified some core issues.
“I wrote down what I ate but Jamie said I was eating nowhere near enough,” he explains. “What I understood from him was that I was taken resources from my immune system to sustain my running. This was making me very prone to bugs and was causing me to pick up the heart virus and chickenpox.”
Jamie then put together a whole new eating plan for Oska, which included greater nutrients in his eating programme to offset the impact of his daily training regime.
“It is something I never would have previously have done, but it has been amazing and it makes me feel like I have two engines.
“We took gluten out of diet because he thought I may have had some sort of intolerance and after eight or nine days I felt incredible. I had total clarity. No brain fog. It was like someone had taken morphine out of my system.
“I’d been battling a sinus infection for eight months, but after removing dairy from diet it cleared up in three days. The turnaround has been incredible. I’ve never looked back since the adjustment.”
Working more closely with sports psychologist John Quinn – which has given him greater “clarity” about organising his time he has also wisely tried to “share the load” a little more rather than attempt to do everything on his own.
The road back
All of which has enhanced his overall health and wellbeing and led to some encouraging early signs for his running. At last month’s New Zealand Road Relays, Oska, running for the University of Canterbury, believes he ran was swiftest second lap performance on the Takahe to Akaroa course for more than a decade.
Then came his victory in the Auckland Half-Marathon which represented another significant moment on his comeback trail.
“It was nice to be able to do what I enjoy again,” he adds of his Auckland victory. “I never went into the race with the thought of running a particular time, it was more putting together the processes to give me every opportunity to perform well.”
Aged just 27 and motivated by the likes of Kiwis Malcolm Hicks (31) and Tony Payne (29), who both recently recorded 2:16 marathons at a more advanced age, Oska is optimistic he can upon improve his current marathon PB of 2:20.36.
In the more immediate future, the Cantabrian has half-an-eye on donning the Black Singlet at the World Cross Country Championships held in Aarhus, Denmark next March.
“I like what Athletics NZ have done to offer a carrot for guys of my standard to potentially compete in a World Cross or World Half Marathon Championships,” he says. “I’m never going to be of the standard of a Mo Farah or the Robertson twin but I think it is really important to open a pathway to guys of my ability.”
Beyond that he hopes to target the 2019 Fukuoka Marathon in Japan in the hope of “making a play” at gaining a qualification mark for the Commonwealth or Olympic Games.
Yet Oska is not getting too carried away, he is simply elated to be feeling reinvigorated once more after enduring a difficult 12 months or so in the sport.
“I just need to stick to the processes and enjoy my running,” he explains. “As long as I do that the bigger stuff will take care of itself.”