Champion rowers face a new challenge

Mahe Drysdale training  in the Port Hills, Christchurch
Mahe Drysdale training in the Port Hills, Christchurch

Olympic champion rowers Mahe Drysdale and Joseph Sullivan might be looking forward to paddling "forwards, not backwards", but they have set realistic goals for tomorrow's Coast to Coast race.

The first-time Longest Day entrants say they simply want to complete the gruelling 243km course from Kumara Beach on the West Coast to Sumner in Christchurch.

Drysdale, the five-time world single sculls champion, said the biggest challenge would be to curb his competitive instincts and pace himself.

"That's going to be the toughest thing for me. The goal is just to finish."

Rowers may be among the world's fittest athletes but Drysdale, whose races take seven minutes from start to finish, said their longest training sessions were "two or three hours".

The Longest Day is a 12-hour cycling, mountain running and kayaking endurance test.

Drysdale, who has been in Christchurch since last Sunday, has run Goat Pass and ridden the final cycling section, so he knows what the course holds in store.

He said the key challenge would be "not to go out too hard" early in the race and have nothing left for the 70km cycle across the Canterbury Plains to the finish line.

"I'm feeling pretty good, but I think I haven't done enough training. But I'm looking forward to it, for the challenge.

"I decided I would do it in November . . . but it's really only the last three weeks that I've been doing specific Coast to Coast training. I will be relying a lot on the last 12 years [of rowing training]."

Drysdale and Sullivan have been paddling on Lake Karapiro and on the Waikato River.

"It's quite swirly and tricky water. It's pretty good to train on."

They have also been running up Maungatautari mountain, which was "harder than Goat Pass, with very, very steep terrain", Drysdale, 34, said.

Cycling training is nothing new for the two rowing champions. About half of Drysdale's training is done on a bike - it helps him manage a back injury. Sullivan also pedals a lot for cross-training, but he hasn't done much specific Coast to Coast cycling preparation.

As expected, both feel at home in a boat. "Kayaking came quite quickly for me," Drysdale said.

"I used to do a lot of kayaking when I was younger, so it's probably more that than a case that rowing has made a good kayaker. But Joseph also picked up kayaking pretty quickly, and he hadn't done a lot of it in the past.

"Obviously, we are going to be going forwards rather than backwards, but apart from that, there's a lot of similarities."

Drysdale said Goat Pass was "a beautiful run" but he expected the 33km boulder-hopping section to be "my toughest discipline".

"I'm a big man, and it's a long time to be on your feet."

Drysdale is on a six-month rowing sabbatical but Sullivan has been putting in double training shifts at Karapiro.

"I've been doing full training with Rowing New Zealand as well as the Coast to Coast training. It's been pretty full on," he said.

"But there's no choice. We've got the [rowing] nationals the week after the Coast to Coast."

The Olympic double sculls gold medallist said competing in the Coast to Coast had been a dream for a decade.

"I'm actually from Rangiora, and I've known about the Coast to Coast for a long time. It was something, when I was about 15, I really wanted to do.

"I've always been really keen, but it's something I thought I'd do after I finished rowing."

Sullivan decided to take the plunge this year after "Mahe decided he was doing it".

"I must have told him once that I'd always wanted to do the Coast to Coast, so now there's both of us doing it.

"I don't think you ever feel ready [for the Coast to Coast]. It's going to be a massive, massive thing to do. But I'm feeling confident I can finish it."

He said that while he "sucked at flat land running", he was "quite suited" to scrambling up mountains.