The Coast to Coast in New Zealand is the world’s longest-running adventure race (35 years) and it has been scratching at my brainstem for a long time now. Held on South Island, the home of the sport, it is 243km of running, scrambling, road biking and river kayaking, and it is spoken of in awed tones as a classic.
But sorting out the logistics – from 19,000km away in London – yawned before me like a chasm. Sure, you can source a kayak and a bike, but with no formal race assistance, how do you get your equipment transported along the course? You need an assistance crew. Luckily, companies such as Total Package Sports are on hand to help. Its director Tom Nicholas was racing for a second time, testing systems, and offered to let me tag along.
Then there was the question of getting fit. My go-to physio for events like these is Joe Lawrence of Beyond Health. He is a Kiwi himself, from South Island, where the race is almost a rite of passage. Evidently he quite liked the idea of patching me up and sending me out again. “We’ll just fine-tune you, mate, and you’ll be good to go…” Fine-tuning actually meant a four-month programme of running and Achilles exercises to add to my already extended regime of cycling (mainly in Richmond Park) and kayaking (at Richmond Canoe Club). Starting from a reasonable base of fitness, by late January I was ready, or as ready as I would ever be.
As a crossing of South Island, from Kumara to Christchurch, the race is a superb way of experiencing the country at its best, and the journey to the start gives a sense of the adventure to come. The Southern Alps loomed massive and threateningly all around us.
The race was already winding into gear, though, with crowds assembling at the camp at Klondyke Corner, the end of the mountain run. Some individual competitors cover the distance in a day, but you can do it in two, singly, as a pair, even a relay of two or three. Plenty of racers and support crews would be staying there overnight.
At Kumara Racecourse on the coast, registration and a rigorous kit check were underway, accompanied by some fanfare, with a press conference in the grandstand. They call this the World Multisport Championship, which feels a bit self-appointed, but is a fair description. The race attracts some fearsome athletes and competitors.
I meet up with Total Package Sports: Tom, his wife Kerina and business partner Lee Lidgard, a former Maori All Black prop, a mountain of a man. And boxes and boxes of kit. Organisation is key in any adventure race, but knowledge of the course also comes in handy here. It’s vital that this pair of shoes is carried in this rucksack, food is put in that changeover bag, energy gels are taped to the bike then. And the kayaks need checking by 5am. Kerina and Lee have this effortlessly in hand (in Lee’s case, literally – he lifts the kayak onto the roof bars one-handed).
Next morning it’s still dark as we make our way to the start at Kumara Beach. Tradition says that I should touch the Tasman Sea. Then I chat to other competitors. Interestingly, there are a few Britons, though many live in east Asia. I bump into Alex, a GP working in Akaroa, near Christchurch. He has a theory about these races. “It’s as though there’s a special Kiwi virus that gets into your brain and convinces you this is a perfectly normal thing to do…”
Suddenly, with a cannon blast, we’re off: 695 of us run the 3km to the bike transition, then it’s 55km to Aickens Corner. The road slices through forest and farmland. It picks up a river; we’re plunged into mist. Punga ferns and tall grasses flash past. Chains of cyclists come together on the flat, break up on the slopes, then reform. It’s not steep – just 270m of climbing – but the pressure’s on to crank it out consistently, legs burning… It feels like you’re never quite doing enough, though equally, you don’t want to overcook it.
At two and a bit hours, I hitch the bike onto a waiting scaffolding pole and scan the crowd for Lee – he’s not hard to spot. He hands over this rucksack… and those shoes… and a banana. I guzzle it and head for the hills.
The 31km route over Goat Pass is billed as a mountain run, but “run” is an elastic term. Occasionally there’s a path, but underfoot it’s mostly river rocks, making jogging nigh-on impossible, and then there are 30-plus river crossings and 800m of ascent. But rock hopping and head-down hiking suit me better. I begin to pass people, haul them in.
The course meanders up valleys, passes momentarily through tree-shaded corridors of ferns and emerges into clefts choked with boulders. Eventually, we scramble over the col and head downhill. You’d be mad not to take a moment to look around. This is stunning New Zealand. After six hours of remorseless sun, there’s torture to come. I spot the finish, but the people waiting under the trees are minuscule. The runners now pass me. It takes 25 minutes before, in some overheated distress, I struggle to the finish of Day One.
The camp has all the fun of the fair – and tents and camper vans. Not for us, though. We’re lucky to head for Flock Hill Lodge, a sheep station that has rather comfortable beds. And showers… and a physio for aching muscles… and a restaurant.
If the race is a rite of passage for Kiwis, it is not simply a rite of youth. People around me are marking 40th and 50th birthdays. Back at the start line for Day Two, I chat to a man in a group of eight. “We haven’t entered for 20 years, but we decided on another run out.” I ask their average age. “Oh, 68, I should think.” Clearly the bug stays with you for life.
Then we’re off, on a 15km cycle and a rocky downhill scurry to the kayak put-in. The Waimakariri Valley, 300m broad in places, is millions of jumbled riverine rocks. The watercourse meanders through, pushing and piling them up as it pleases. For us it’s about making maximum speed, picking lines down the braids, reading the breaking crests of water through the chutes and rocky races. We glide down, to the clink‑ker-clink of the rudder hitting rocks, swinging hard as the water boils and turns. The Coast to Coast has engendered its own design of river boat, which can be paddled like a river kayak, but is manoeuvrable through the rapids.
Later, pinched by the Waimakariri gorge, the water becomes bigger, turning blue (with depth) and sometimes white. These are proper rapids, and I wonder whether I’ll make it through upright. My paddle is buffeted by the wind and a 4ft-wide boil rises 6in out of the water like some demonic dome. It’s a fantastic day out – hefting turns under rockfaces, dodging rocks, blasting stoppers, riding wave trains and running eddy lines – just slightly tense when you have the urgency of getting through efficiently.
Normally, I have good luck with equipment, but today I am the man on the bank, fixing things instead of churning out the kilometres. I am extremely grateful to one of the safety marshals who manages to reset the steering. Even grade-two rapids would be challenging without a rudder.
It’s 70km on the water. And then, after a pie, courtesy of Lee, I’m back on the bike, for the final 70km into Christchurch. It’s notorious, this stretch. Hence the sign: MIND OVER HEADWIND.
A white dot appears in the distance, and I know that I must, simply must, catch up with it, so I chug a gel and growl and heave and strain. And after 15 minutes I haul him in. His name is Craig. Between us we share the load (though drafting is not permitted at the front of the field). We take turns to lead, alternately copping the wind and catching our breath, but killing kilometres together. We haul in other riders. Some drop off, but an exhausted Stefan, a Swede, just clings on and eventually joins in our miniature chain gang.
Eyre Road continues remorselessly, heart-rendingly straight, wind channelled into our faces by roadside trees, for 40km. My thighs and lungs continue to burn, but I have just one thought – GET TO THE END. Suddenly, we reach the suburbs of Christchurch: roundabouts, houses, marshals waving us on. At New Brighton Beach, with 2km to go, Stefan hares off. I’m not having that, so I run him down and we cross the line together. Relief. Satisfaction.
A beer is slapped in my hand and a medal hung round my neck. Tom, Lee and Kerina congratulate me. And then I head down to the Pacific Ocean, to cool off my feet. Well, it is the Coast to Coast, after all.