Opportunities abound in multi-day adventure races

By Michael Brown

If you are keen to test your limits, there are plenty of opportunities, writes Michael Brown.
Coast to Coast director Richard Ussher. Photo /photosport.co.nz
Coast to Coast director Richard Ussher. Photo /photosport.co.nz

Coast to Coast, ironman, ultra marathons, GODZone, multi-day adventure races, Pioneer ... it's like shopping at Christmas time - you're spoilt for choice and struggle to select the right one.

Where once there was only a handful, there are now hundreds of adventure and multisport races. Perhaps too many.

If cycling has become the new golf in New Zealand, adventure racing is the new half marathon.

It's no longer crazy to race from one side of New Zealand to the other over the Southern Alps. In fact, it's not even that crazy to race for three or four days and snatching a few minutes' sleep in the bush. Many people are looking to challenge themselves in different ways but also want a good experience to go with it.

Former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw competed in GODZone last year, bringing the event unprecedented coverage as he trekked, kayaked, mountain biked and canoed largely non-stop for five days over the 500km course.

The challenge for those who dream up new races is to come up with something that is challenging but achievable, enduring yet appealing, and, crucially for the organisers, profitable.

It's relatively easy to set up a new event in this country, due to the low barriers in place, which means there is a glut of races on the market. Some last but others are gone before the tyre tread marks from the last race have barely dried out.

"It makes it really hard for some smaller operators," says Dave Beeche, managing director of Ironman Oceania who also run a handful of marathons and the Pioneer, a seven-day mountain bike race. "Many come in with rose-tinted glasses but it's not easy to make these things work. Every market goes through a phase of too many products and some rationalisation. We're probably at that stage now where there's a lot of choice out there and there might be some consolidation in coming years.

"While that makes it very challenging, I really like the fact people are coming up with new ideas. It keeps you on your toes and makes you work really hard to make sure your one is really good."

The Coast to Coast has endured, and for years was seen as the blue riband event, but it hasn't always been easy.

During the 1980s and 1990s, it sat alongside a couple of marathons and the New Zealand Ironman as the main feature on the adventure racing calendar.

It was the brainchild of Robin Judkins, a mad-cap individual who became obsessed with the idea of the race during a remote excursion with a mate in 1980 who mentioned the words "coast to coast".

Judkins and 11 friends pioneered the 243km-long course in 1982 and less than 12 months later, 79 adventurous individuals took part in the first race. Almost comically, one of the bikes had a baby seat attached and another competitor's kayak was made of canvas.

Judkins also staged a Cape Reinga to Bluff race in 1990 but it was so tough, only 12 competitors took part. There wasn't a second race.

The Coast to Coast peaked in the mid-late 2000s, when about 900 entrants lined up for either the one-day or two-day events. But the Christchurch earthquakes, together with the high cost of competing, saw that number drop to about 500 in 2013, when Judkins sold it.

Complacency was probably an issue in an increasingly competitive environment and the event hadn't really moved with the times.

"That was one of the fundamental issues," says five-time Coast to Coast winner Richard Ussher, who was brought on as race director in 2015. "The race was probably starting to lose its relevance in many people's eyes and it suffered. What we needed to do was give it a face-lift to revitalise it."

In its early days, the Coast to Coast lived off a rugged, mountain-man image and played on the extreme nature of the event. Nine-time winner Steve Gurney was a perfect fit, becoming a household name, and it helped he was as mad as the race's creator.

It's still a difficult race, particularly the one-day event, but Ussher is trying to tell a different story. This has seen new categories, like the tandem section complete with tandem kayaks, as well as the provision of race equipment for out-of-towners to make it more accessible.

"Anyone who is committed to doing some training can give the race a crack in some form," Ussher says.

The long-term association with Speight's Brewery, which played on the tough, Southern Man image, has also ended. This has allowed them to go into schools and community groups to sell the concept of the race - it's a bit harder when it's attached to alcohol branding - and it's helped see the numbers recover to such an extent, about 700 competitors will take part next month.

The Pioneer is a different type of challenge. The seven-day mountain bike race from Christchurch to Queenstown is meant to be challenging, but also accentuates the experience. Competitors camp together each night - the tent village is already set up when riders roll in each day - and have the opportunity to share "war stories".

Beeche came up with the concept when racing the Swiss Epic, believing a multi-day mountain bike stage race would work in New Zealand. He used Queenstown as the finish line and worked backwards, riding hundreds of kilometres of back-country trails before settling on a route to Christchurch.

The first Pioneer was held last year and some feedback suggested there were probably too many climbs that were unrideable - there have been a few tweaks ahead of next month's second instalment - but Beeche didn't want to make it too easy. "It's supposed to be hard," he says. "I wanted people to have a sense of achievement. Dozens of people came up after the race and said, 'don't make it easier'."

The Pioneer lost money in its first year and probably won't break even this time around, but the hot showers and good food will stay because Beeche wants to turn it into an "long-term iconic" event that attracts domestic and international competitors.

He hopes it becomes an event that sells out each year because people want it on their endurance CV. It's tapping into the overseas market that might ultimately decide whether that happens or not and would require about 40 per cent international entrants.

"The New Zealand market is so small that there's a finite number of Kiwis we can attract," Ussher says. "For us to hit our target of 1100 competitors [in the Coast to Coast], we really only need to appeal to a tiny percentage of internationals. We just have to have the right event."

- NZ Herald

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