From ice-skating in Australia, to fairground boxing and a silver medal at the World Masters for the marathon – over the years, Jim Sonerson, 75, of Warkworth, has tried them all. Never one to do things by halves, Jim celebrated his second marriage in the middle of a paddock at Pipiriki, after the second day of the Mountain to Sea multisport event in 1993, attended by national media. He will celebrate his 15th wedding anniversary on the same course at Labour Weekend….
You can’t kill weeds. I was born in Sydney, Australia, the fifth of six children. Competitive by nature, I
started ice-skating while at school. Several of my siblings worked at an ice-skating rink near where I lived, so it was a natural choice. By the time I left school I was teaching skating. I found I was better than most at skating. I went in skating shows and even made some 18 inch high stilts to skate on in shows. I changed to speed skating and won some New South Wales and Australian titles in the late 1940s, but that wasn’t exciting enough, so I turned to ice hockey – and got a few more bruises. I qualified for the 1953 Winter Olympics at Cortina in Italy, but couldn’t afford to pay for my ticket, so withdrew. That was a great disappointment for me.
I was a dedicated sportsman. I was training in a boxing gymnasium to get fit for skating and one thing led to another and I ended up boxing. I did fights at the Sydney and Paramatta Stadia, earning one pound a round and five pound if I won. That was 13 pound a week usually – good money compared to the three pound I had earned coaching skating.
One day a man from Jimmy Sharman’s Touring Boxing Group spotted me and offered me a place in the troop. I thought, ‘Why not?’ and joined up. However I soon realized this wasn’t the best of lifestyles. The mainly Aboriginal troop was given food and keep, and we had to fight any comers of the same weight that chose us. We got some good hidings at times. In the late 1950s the government outlawed more than one fight a week for each boxer, so that finished the troop. So it was off to work on an Australian sheep station to keep bread on the table.
In 1968 I moved to New Zealand. I had met a Kiwi girl and together we had two boys and a girl. My brother who was heavily into marathon running went to England and I wasn’t to meet up with him for 30 years until we both ended up on the starting line of a Melbourne marathon. He got as big a surprise as I did. We have kept in contact since.
I worked on Motuihe Island for 18 months and then managed a sheep and beef farm at Kumeu and then at Wainui. In 1974 I came to Warkworth. I’d had 20 years of farming and that was enough. I got a job driving trucks and then my relationship split up and I was at a loose end. That is when I joined the Wellsford Road Runners’ Club. I hadn’t run at all in my life, so it was a new sport. Peter Millar, captain of the club, talked me into going into a marathon in Christchurch six weeks later and it nearly killed me. I vowed after that I’d never do another one unless I trained properly for it.
I met well know athletics coach Arthur Lydiard, who gave me a training programme. I followed his advice and six years later I did the Auckland marathon in 2hrs 45 minutes. That was up with the top times – I should have started earlier in life! Running got bit boring, so I tried triathlons, and did my first Mountain to Sea event in 1987, the same year I took out a silver medal at the World Masters Games in Melbourne. (I was 54). Apart from one other competitor, I’m the only person who has competed in every Mountain to Sea event since then. I’ve got my hand up to take part in the ninth one, which is this Labour Weekend. The Mountain to Sea has 110 kilometres of kayaking, 52 kilometres of running, and 129 kilometres of bike riding. – just over 280 kms in all, spread over three days.
Day two of the competition will bring back memories of my wedding, when my partner, Judy Gibbs, and I spontaneously decided to tie the knot. The ceremony was held at the end of the particularly arduous 87 km kayak down the Whanganui River. I was so tired I could hardly stand up and I was certainly too tired to run away. The race organisers swung into action, found a Maori marriage celebrant named Lulu who lived at Raetihi, produced a chocolate wedding cake from nowhere, and loaned the ambulance as a bridal car. About 800 people, including media from around New Zealand, were there. Our kids and friends turned up – it was a lot bigger than we’d imagined. The Pipiriki School children sang for us and the local Maori people put down a hangi. The event hit the international news.
This time will also be special as I will be celebrating my 15th wedding anniversary. But it will also be challenging as it will be only three years since I was diagnosed with cancer and given a one in five chance of survival. I had several operations and I think they got it all. Recovery has been gradual. Preparing for the race will be interesting as at my age, you can either train or race – you can’t do both! If I tried to, it’d kill me. I can’t find anyone my age to train with any more, so I end up training with younger people. I have a bike in the garage and I will get out on the river to do some kayaking. I still enjoy the biking and kayaking, but the running is harder. Running is a mind game. When your muscles ache you have to talk to them and eventually the ache goes away. I’m doing this for fun now, but I still like winning.
Probably the hardest paddle I have done was in 1996, when I, at 63 years of age, took on an eight hour non-stop paddle from Warkworth town wharf to the cement works ruins, to raise funds for a floating pontoon for kayakers. I completed 16 laps in that time. Wayne Wright challenged that attempt several years later and between us we raised $12,000 for the project
I am on the Warkworth Riverbank Enhancement Group committee and the Kowhai Festival organizing committee This will be the 17th year I have organized the Canoe Showdown at the festival.