Coast to Coast is a race for all types, ages

HARDY SOULS: Competitors cross a river during the Coast to Coast race.
HARDY SOULS: Competitors cross a river during the Coast to Coast race.

A Coast to Coast competitor squatted on the sand cradling a sneaky fag just minutes before Robin Judkins blew the start hooter just after dawn at Kumara Beach.

Another bounced along on an artificial leg on the run up the road from Serpentine to the rows of gleaming road bikes at Kumara Junction.

A 79-year-old retiree, still spry as any mountain tahr, scrambled up big boulders and over Goat Pass to the transition stage at Klondyke Corner.

Are these hardy souls - and hundreds of others just like them - the champions of the Coast to Coast?

Or is it all about the elite athlete who flashes first across the finish-line at Coast to Coast. Both.

The Coast is, quintessentially, a race within an iconic event. It's had its share of superstars. Richard and Elina Ussher, the current Longest Day champions, are carrying a torch once borne by Coast to Coast legends Steve Gurney, Kathy Lynch, Jill Westenra and the record-breaking Murray couple, Keith and Andrea.

We should - and do - celebrate their success. We marvel at their fitness and fortitude.

Richard Ussher usually makes waves as he leaves kayakers in his wake down the Waimakariri River. But the five-times champion raised ripples this week with his call for a race revamp.

None of the 620-strong field would disagree with Ussher, that the race should be cheaper.

Judkins himself has acknowledged it costs Auckland competitors up to $10,000 in entry fees, equipment costs, travel and accommodation for the pleasure of biking, running and paddling 243km from west coast to east.

But he also argued, with some conviction, that the race is a business. His overheads are rising and sponsorship is notoriously tricky to secure in a recession.

A lot of what Ussher said made good sense. After 31 years, the Coast could do with more razzamatazz. He races all around the world and his views are worth listening to.

But many of Ussher's gripes were about improving the lot for the serious contenders, and the Coast to Coast cannot be geared entirely at the elite.

Characters like Mike Ward, the Nelson jewellery maker, street hawker and former Green MP, who has done the race since day dot in 1983, are as much part of its fabric as Ussher or Gurney.

The event's charm is its accessibility to anyone - or at least those who can stump up the cash.

Multisport is a middle-class pursuit. Glance down the entry list and you'll see lots of lawyers, pilots, doctors and other professional people.

Nothing wrong with that - the same is true of codes like cricket, tennis and polo.

But maybe it's time for some Outward Bound-type scholarships to allow people with the dream but not the dollars to share the buzz.

Wouldn't it be great to see a Government-sponsored scheme where a judge could sentence a young offender to home detention provided they train and race in the Coast to Coast?

The best back stories at the Coast to Coast are not about the elite adventure racers but about the people bouncing back from heart bypass surgery or serious injury. Of former fatties who have shed sedentary lifestyles to achieve a goal they once feared as distant as another solar system planet.

The look of elation, mingled with exhaustion, on their faces is longer-lasting than an extra zero on the prizemoney cheque.

Ussher suggested it was time for Judkins to step aside and let someone else run his race.

Yet it's impossible to imagine the event without its founder's lurid Hawaiian-style shirts. And his customary cackle like a herniated hyena as he clambers out of his chopper and hands a can of Speights to each finisher.

There are plenty of other events for the lycra lads and lasses but Judkins' race remains multisport's mothership.

Robin Judkins has done well out of the Coast to Coast down the years, but others have done well out of Robin Judkins.

Hosting the Coast to Coasters has been a money-spinner for the Kumara community. Judkins is also putting money into a predator control scheme to save the blue duck population in Arthur's Pass National Park.

But the real star of the Coast to Coast is the course they traverse.

As an Aucklander asked on the sunny western side of the main divide this week: "Is it always like this here? If it is, then it's paradise." That attitude may have changed under attack yesterday from a sandfly squadron.

The faster folk in the field probably don't have time to take in their surroundings as they whirr in a blur through the organised chaos of the transition areas, minds full of split times, energy "bonks" and rivals fore and aft.

But the tail-end Charlies can absorb it all. From the verdant expanses of West Coast bush. To the mist whisping above impossibly steep peaks.

To the morass of boulders and the sun speckling the Waimak waters.

It is all balm for the inevitable pain as they push their bike across the burnished plain into a beastly old easterly.

The Press