Rising to new Coast to Coast challenge

NEW CHALLENGES: Having made the transition from competitor to race director,  Richard Ussher is now looking to ...
Danielle Colvin/Fairfax NZ

NEW CHALLENGES: Having made the transition from competitor to race director, Richard Ussher is now looking to reinvigorate the popular Coast to Coast event.

It has long been the ultimate test: the Coast to Coast is a race that traverses the South Island from west to east, taking competitors through mountainous terrain and down swift-flowing rivers, battling the elements on bike, foot and kayak.

Founded in 1982, it is New Zealand's proving ground for multisport athletes and those with a passion for adventure. Individuals and teams can slog out the 243km course over one gut-busting day or two.

Richard Ussher knows the twists of turns of the challenging course better than most. He first took it on in 2000, fresh from a freestyle skiing career that saw him represent New Zealand at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

'INCREDIBLY SPECIAL':  In 2012, Richard Ussher and his wife, Elina, each won their Longest Day races.
Don Scott

'INCREDIBLY SPECIAL': In 2012, Richard Ussher and his wife, Elina, each won their Longest Day races.

"I was looking for the next challenge. I saw the Coast to Coast on television and it captured my imagination. It was such a stunning concept and such a stunning course. That notion of crossing the country in a day is pretty special."

As Ussher observes, people need a robust set of skills to master this race. 

It is not just about being able to run competitively, but being able to run competitively over rocks. It is not enough to know about kayaking on flat water or white water; this race requires good all-round kayaking skills. It pushes people's physical and mental endurance to the max.

CONFIDENCE BOOST: Keith Murray competing in the 2001 event.
Rachel Simpson

CONFIDENCE BOOST: Keith Murray competing in the 2001 event.

Winning the Longest Day (the one-day event) for the first time in 2005 was "amazing" for Ussher – although he still rates 2008 as his best winning performance. On the day, he was able to push as hard as he wanted, and keep on pushing. It was one of those near-perfect performances he has often striven to replicate over the years. Also remembered with fondness is the 2012 Coast to Coast, when he and his wife, Elina, each won their Longest Day races. 

"It was incredibly special. For both of us to be able to celebrate what we had achieved was very cool." 

The couple met at a race in South Africa in 2005 and soon after Finland-born Elina moved to New Zealand. Their home is at Tahuna, Nelson, 10 minutes from the beach. 

'SPECTACULAR' COURSE: Sophie Hart was the first to cross the finish line in 2011.
Iain McGregor

'SPECTACULAR' COURSE: Sophie Hart was the first to cross the finish line in 2011.

"Elina was racing before I was and had a lot of success with the Finnish team before we met. We have ended up doing a lot of travelling together for events – we have had a fantastic shared journey," Ussher says.

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CHALLENGES AHEAD

This month, though, he will be sitting out the Coast to Coast on February 13-14, watching from the sidelines as Elina battles it out in the women's Longest Day field, in which she will be hoping to beat last year's winner, Wanaka's Jess Simson. 

TOP COMPETITOR: Multiple winner Steve Gurney gets a lift from Coast to Coast founder Robin Judkins.
Kirk Hargreaves

TOP COMPETITOR: Multiple winner Steve Gurney gets a lift from Coast to Coast founder Robin Judkins.

In the men's Longest Day, Ussher believes the 2013 and 2014 winner, Braden Currie, of Wanaka, could do it again, although he also sees tough competition coming from young multisport stars such as Sam Clark and Sam Manson.

Having made the transition from competitor to race director, the challenge for Ussher this time around has been how to reinvigorate the Coast to Coast in time for the 2015 race. 

Two years ago, Ussher sparked debate on the Coast to Coast after giving an interview to a journalist on the state of the event. What came out of that interview was a 10-point plan for change, including recommendations for lower race fees, more prize money, and new blood/new ideas to lift the event's profile. 

While praising Robin Judkins' founding vision, Ussher suggested the event was languishing and in urgent need of a fresh approach. It didn't go down well with Judkins at the time and some argued Ussher should have held his tongue, at least until after the race that year. Ussher's perspective remains that he was simply giving honest answers to a journalist's questions. 

"I felt the race was starting to lose some of its lustre and that other races were doing it better and smarter than the Coast to Coast," Ussher says. "I wasn't trying to take anything away from Robin. He got this race off the ground and ran it for a long time. Without his vision, multisport as we know it would probably not exist."

As it happens, the debate ignited at a time when Judkins was already thinking of moving on. In later interviews, he conceded Ussher's comments probably gave him the kick he needed to make up his mind. Within a few months, he had sold the race to Queenstown's Trojan Holdings Ltd. (Competitors will still see Judkins at this year's race – he has stayed on in a support role for 2015. Although the race is now in new hands, it remains his brainchild and it is hard to imagine the Coast to Coast without him.)

Last February, the new owners appointed Ussher as race director. The pressure is now on to see what he can pull out of the bag for 2015 and beyond.

"It is pretty daunting at times," he admits. "There have been some nervous moments over changes we have announced, but I'm very lucky that the team we have got has a lot of skills and enthusiasm. It makes a massive difference."

One of the biggest changes to this weekend's event involves the finish line. 

Traditionally, the Coast to Coast has ended at Sumner Beach, but this year it will finish at the pier on New Brighton Beach. The switch has been made primarily to create a safer final stage; one that is easier to manage from traffic and parking perspectives. The new finish only shaves 500m off the original course. 

"The New Brighton community has been unbelievable – they have been so positive. Our goal is to have a real festival atmosphere at the end, not just a race finish."

Entry fees for this month's race are lower than in previous years, which Ussher believes will make a big difference to participation, particularly in the two-day, two-person team entries. Last year, it would have cost just under $2250 to enter the two-day team event; this year's early-bird rate was $1350. 

"The two-day team event is pretty achievable for anyone with reasonable fitness and a can-do attitude. We want people to come and experience the race."

Early indications are that the lower fee strategy is working. Just over 500 competitors lined up for the 2014 race. At the time of writing, more than that had already registered for this month's race and Ussher is anticipating a final count of 700 to 800. 

"It is hard to forecast exactly how many we will get, but we've been getting great feedback."

TELLING THE STORY

Support crews and the public will find this year's Coast to Coast easier to follow. On race day, all the top competitors will be wearing lightweight clip-on GPS trackers that will be updated every few minutes (although possibly at slower intervals where GPS coverage is not as good). Updates, photos and video will be posted on a live website and a free-to-download app will also enable people to keep track of the race. Electronic timing will record all competitors' times as they pass through each stage and these results will be posted online and through social media. 

"We've focused on trying to tell the story as it is happening to create as much live content as we can."

At New Brighton Beach, a 40sqm screen will show updates and information throughout the race.

New to the Coast to Coast this year is a tandem team two-day event, in which competitors will paddle supplied double kayaks.

"The reason we introduced that one is that logistically the hardest part for many people is the kayaking in terms of the skills needed but also transportation of kayaks. This just gives people an extra pathway into the race."

Ussher grew up in a supportive family in Wellington. His parents had their hands full most weekends carting Ussher and his two sisters to various sports events. In his high school years, he developed a passion for freestyle skiing and left at the start of his final year to pursue the goal of representing New Zealand at the Winter Olympics, finally doing so at Nagano in 1998. He was twice named New Zealand freestyle skier of the year. A lack of coaching and funding are cited as the reasons his skiing career was curtailed. 

Then Ussher found the Coast to Coast. A new career beckoned. Being invited to race with Team Seagate in 2003 was a huge breakthrough.

"It really changed my outlook on what was possible and allowed me to become a full-time athlete ... I've raced through North America, Central America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Through this sport, I have been able to see a huge amount of the world. It has been fantastic."

Now 38, Ussher isn't planning to retire from racing just yet. Having competed internationally for Team Seagate and in his own highly successful race team with Elina for events such as the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge (2007-2010), it is no surprise to hear he is still passionate about multisport. The difference now is that he can be more selective about the events he enters. He is even considering a return to the ski slopes this winter. 

"I'm starting to think I wouldn't mind going out for a slide again."

In the meantime, Ussher says the director's seat feels like the right place to be for this month's race.

"I'm getting as much satisfaction out of trying to make this race as great for everyone involved as I would out of trying to win it. It is a new challenge. If I can run a good race this year, I don't think I will have any pangs or regrets about not racing it."

The 2015 Speights Coast to Coast takes place February 13-14. 

COAST TO COAST STARS

John Howard, winner of the individual two-day event in 1984 and the team event the next year.

How different was the Coast to Coast back then? I was there for the first race – I didn't do it, but I went to watch and to help a friend. There were only about 50 competitors, mostly bush men or mountaineers. They were full-time outdoors people. Now, it's more the weekend-warrior type who goes to the gym to train.

Were you an outdoors man yourself at the time? Yes. I was a mountaineer, rock climber and kayaker.

How did competing in the Coast to Coast change your life? It set me 20 years after that, I competed in adventure races and events all around the world. It gave me a career in adventure racing and course design.

Has your involvement with the Coast to Coast continued? Yes. I've been an adviser on mountain safety for the past 20 years. The environment has not changed that much. It can still be very challenging, but the weather forecasts have got a lot better, so there is now far less likelihood of being caught out by bad weather events. I enjoy seeing people go through. This is not just about safety; it's also about encouraging and supporting people.

What's special about the Coast to Coast? It is one of those races that is achievable by most people if they give their year to it and learn the skills. It's such a logical route, yet very, very challenging. It is on the same level as the Hawaii Ironman.

What do you do now? I have two young children, aged 9 and 12. We do a bit of sailing and go tramping. We love getting into the outdoors.

Keith Murray, winner of the Coast to Coast Longest Day in 1994.

You set a record time of 10 hours 34 minutes in 1994. How did you do it? I was a lot younger then!

How have you been able to achieve success in multisport while juggling a busy medical practice and family commitments? Time management and having a great wife.

What is special about winning the Coast to Coast? It is the original long-distance multisport race in New Zealand (and the world) and has the particular appeal and achievement of going right across the country from beach to beach.

What difference did it make to your racing career? It gave me a lot of confidence that I could foot it with the best.

What are you doing now? I still like to kayak and hike, and do a bit of hunting. I haven't raced properly for 10 years, but Breen Homes, which built our wonderful home in Wanaka, where we now live, has sponsored us to put a family team into the Godzone adventure race [at Wanaka] in February, so I'm in – with my wife, Andrea, and sons, Charlie and Craig. I haven't ever heard of a family team doing a serious adventure race, so it will be interesting.

Sophie Hart, double winner of the one-day Coast to Coast.

When did you first compete in this race and what got you hooked? I first competed in a team in 2004. I had a background in running and thought I could do the mountain run. We came third. I thought it'd be cool to do the individual race, but I had no kayaking experience at that stage, so I started doing a few multisport races. I ended up doing the two-day individual race in 2006 and then the one-day event in 2008, but I had a disappointing result and thought I would not go back again. Eventually, I realised I was scared about not doing well; it was a silly reason not to enter. So I trained again for 2010. I went back the following year and won it.

What difference did that win make? It gave me confidence. To go out and win it in 2011, and then back that up again in 2013, was pretty special. My paddling used to be shocking. I put a lot of time and energy into that and now it is my strongest discipline.

What makes the Coast to Coast so special? It is the race to do in New Zealand in terms of multisport. The course is special, the mountain run is spectacular and the paddle is second to none. 

Why did you decide not to enter this year? I recently competed in the 2014 world adventure racing championships in Ecuador [as part of the winning Team Seagate]. I was away for a month. Now, I want to have a summer of fun. 

We understand you recently moved to Canterbury from Nelson. Yes, my partner got a job here and I'm now working as a GP in Lyttelton.

Steve Gurney, winner of a record nine Coast to Coasts.

When did you first compete in the race? I first moved to Canterbury because I had heard of the Coast to Coast race. Rather than entering straight away, I waited until I had finished my engineering degree, so I would be able to put more time into training for it. I also joined a white-water club at the university to get my skills up to do it once I had graduated. I did it for the first time in 1986. I was convinced I was going to win; I failed – I came 22nd and it strengthened my resolve. I did eventually win it on my fifth attempt. What I like about the race is its completeness, going from one coast to another. As a bloke, you like to have adventure skills and survival skills. The Coast to Coast answers that. It is a full-on commitment.

How did you become a consistent winner? By training smarter, instead of harder. The year before I won it, I was doing 55 hours a week of training over summer. It was too much ... then I got introduced to mentor Grahame Felton, who taught me about mental attitude. Part of the attitude side of it is also about being clever and a little cunning. I started applying my engineering knowledge to my equipment. With Grahame Sisson, I invented a fully enclosed pod, an aerodynamic shell over a bike. It was ground-breaking. That got banned, but every year I'd try and invent something new. It was psychological; it was about creating a brand and being one step ahead.

What is special about the Coast to Coast? It is a life-changing race. It was the reason I moved to Christchurch and the reason I stayed so long ... Juddy [Coast to Coast founder Robin Judkins] had amazing vision. By appealing to people's sense of adventure, he created a truly inspirational race.

What are you doing now? After the earthquakes, I moved from Christchurch to Queenstown. I am a motivational and inspirational conference speaker and trainer.

 - The Press

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