Life's a big adventure for Sophie

Last updated 13:00 18/02/2013
Sophie Hart
MARTIN HUNTER/ PHOTOSPORT
PURE RELIEF: Sophie Hart wins the 2013 Women's Coast to Coast at Sumner Beach in Christchurch this month.

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Sophie Hart isn't sure if she'll defend her Coast to Coast title next year.

It's not a decision set in stone, more of a reflection on another demanding ordeal put to bed and a challenge met.

"It's a big commitment over summer," says the 29-year-old Nelson GP, just two days after winning her second women's one-day multisport title.

She's weary, yet still looking remarkably fresh considering her 12hr 36min 19sec slog across the South Island from Kumara Beach on the West Coast to Sumner Beach about 243km away.

"It's a selfish thing to do," she says.

"I really enjoy the training but, for something like the Coast to Coast, it is really focused and you do have to be pretty disciplined through summer, which isn't a problem. I really enjoy it, but there's just so many other things I want to do."

She's clearly not interested in matching the dynasties established by Motueka's Kathy Lynch, who won four of her five titles consecutively between 1991 and 1994, or Wellington's Jill Westenra who also won four straight titles from 2000 to 2003.

Hart's previous title success was two years ago, when her time of 12hr 10min 31sec was only fractionally outside the women's individual record of 12hr 9min 26sec set by Christchurch's Andrea Murray in 1997.

So there's no question that Hart has the capacity to potentially grind out many more titles in the near future. And as multisports events go, she admits this one sets the benchmark.

Yet it's by no means her sole competitive focus. She's also one of the world's leading adventure racers and last September was part of the Seagate team that won the world adventure racing title in France.

Alongside team captain Nathan Fa'avae, Chris Forne and Trevor Voyce, Hart finally nailed the coveted world crown, just 10 months after Seagate had blown a winning opportunity in Tasmania when a four-hour time penalty for misplacing a GPS tracker early in the race, coupled with some frustrating bike mechanical issues, effectively dropped them from first to third place overall.

"I think we raced better as a team in France than we did in Tasmania. I think in Tasmania, we didn't race poorly, but there were definitely some things we could have done better. And we had a lot of bad luck as well. But in France we raced really well as a team and it was pretty satisfying."

Seagate's triumphant 125hr 40min journey last year from L'Argentiere-la-Bessee in the heart of the Ecrins National Park in the French Alps to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin around 500km away on the Mediterranean coast came on the back of leadup wins in the Tierra Viva race in Patagonia, the Godzone Adventure race in New Zealand's South Island and the Ordos Adventure Challenge in China.

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A hectic competitive schedule, certainly, and all part of the diversity Hart enjoys in two similar, yet still contrasting pursuits. She offers some comparisons.

"The adventure racing I find I don't get as nervous in the buildup . . . because I guess you're surrounded by three other people who are basically supporting you, so you're working as a team and it's a bit more of a comfortable environment.

"It's a long race. It doesn't really matter what happens on the first day in an adventure race because you've got another four days of racing to make up for it.

"Also, I think racing with Nathan and Chris, who are both so experienced, it's like you know you've got two of the best team-mates in the world. So you're in pretty good company. So the adventure racing, I find it quite a lot of fun."

Comparatively speaking, the Coast to Coast is a virtual sprint.

"I get quite a lot more nervous before the Coast to Coast than I do necessarily before an adventure race.

"The Coast to Coast is a lot faster so the intensity's a lot more, and the training for it is tailored towards that. So when I'm training for the Coast to Coast, I do a lot more speed stuff.

"The adventure racing comes down to as much of a mental thing as a physical thing.

"A lot can happen in an adventure race, curve balls that you're not expecting, and I guess it's just dealing with those. It's more of a suffer-fest, you're not sleeping and you're not eating properly for five days."

But pressed, Hart admits that competing over a four or five-day period in different countries, particularly with the backdrop of the "stunning" wilderness they encountered in France, probably edges adventure racing ahead as her preference.

"I like the Coast to Coast because it's a good level of competition and I think, if you want to do well in multisport, that's the race to do.

"But I do really like the adventure element in the outdoors."

Being part of team brings with it certain pressures and responsibilities, something Hart says has occasionally preyed on her mind.

"Sometimes there'll be moments during the race when I'm struggling to keep up with the guys and it's often when things get a bit more technical on foot, because they're just so fast.

"I'm getting better . . . but I'm ultimately slower than [the men] when it comes to the technical off-trail travel. There's moments when I get really angry with myself because I can't keep up.

"I perceive that's one of my weaknesses, travelling on rough ground, because I haven't done much of it really before. It's taking a while to get used to it. I do really like it but it's just when the heat's on, when there's other teams around and we're on really rough stuff, and I can't keep up. And it gets worse when you're tired too."

She says she's learned a lot from Fa'avae and Forne, Nelson's Voyce being a more recent addition to the team, and has been able to incorporate that knowledge into an individual context.

"I think in terms of mental preparation, the adventure racing's helped heaps, just for the experience of racing and managing yourself and your nutrition and everything through the day.

"Physically, it must [help], once you recover from the race, [because] you know you've got a pretty good endurance base."

Hart says that her preparation for this year's Coast to Coast was comparatively limited.

"When I did it two years ago, I had the luxury of just having the Coast to Coast as my main race, so I had quite a big build up. But this time around, because of our busy [adventure racing] season, I sort of had to curtail that a bit. So it was probably a big build up in some people's eyes, but relative to what I did last time, it wasn't so long.

"I started ticking away in about November. It must have been about 10 weeks or something like that. And coming off the season of adventure racing we had, I had some endurance."

Originally from Ohope, Hart's background is in cross-country running and ironically, didn't originally fancy taking on the Coast to Coast because of the extended 67km kayak down the Waimakariri Gorge and the combined 140km of cycling.

She first competed with a friend as a team in 2004 and won the women's two-day title in 2006 (13hr 10min 47sec) before finishing a "disappointing" eighth in her first one-day attempt in 2008.

"[2008] was my first [one-day] attempt and on reflection, I've just learned so much since then, but I was probably overtrained and just didn't appreciate how much of the race is experience and knowing how to manage yourself during the day.

"So it was a big learning curve but I sort of remember thinking that the Coast to Coast wasn't really the race for me because you couldn't run a lot of the run, because it's boulder hopping. I was a runner so like to trail run and the kayaking was too hard and the biking was too long to suit me."

Since arriving in Nelson about four years ago though, Hart's developed her kayaking expertise to such a level that it's now her preferred discipline. Having experienced kayaker and surf ski exponent Fa'avae as her coach certainly helped the process.

Aware of Hart's initial limitations on the water, Fa'avae encouraged her to complete a four-day white water course with the New Zealand Kayak School in 2010.

"The tables have turned completely now. Definitely, the longer the kayak the better, and the shorter the run the better. I've put a lot of work, I guess not intentionally, into my kayaking, but I've just found I've enjoyed it more and more in the last few years."

Surprisingly, the one leg she never looks forward to is the initial 3km run from Kumara Beach before the opening 55km road cycle.

"I hate it . . . because of pre-race nerves.

"You've got to have your bikes racked by five [am] and the race starts at six [am]. It's dark and there's people everywhere, you've got butterflies flying around [and] you're starting with the guys.

"So it's fast and it's pretty crucial, I think, if you want to do well in the women's race to make that first bunch, because there's usually a breakaway bunch with the top guys. Often there's a big bunch behind them and more often than not, that's where a few of the women sit."

Hart's main threat for this year's title was defending champion and fellow Nelsonian Elina Ussher and with Hart finishing the critical kayak leg about 23 minutes ahead of Ussher, she knew she couldn't afford any hiccups during the final 70km cycle leg into Sumner.

"That last ride can actually play quite a large part in your day. One year, I think [three-time winner, Canadian] Emily Miazga took eight minutes or something out of Fleur [Pawsey] and beat her by 40 seconds or something on that last ride. So it is important, it's important to be strong on the bike."

Hart says she'd never consider becoming a professional athlete. She appreciates the balance working at her inner city practice provides and the outdoor lifestyle she enjoys with her partner Nick Ross, himself an accomplished adventure racer.

And while she says she might not be lining up to defend her crown on Kumara Beach again next year, you shouldn't bet your house on it.

- Nelson

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