Going the distance in Coast to Coast

BRENDON EGAN
Last updated 05:00 15/02/2014

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Christchurch's Brendon Vercoe used inspiration from patients at Burwood Hospital to guide him to the early lead in the Coast to Coast's two-day men's individual race.

The 27-year-old, who is a physiotherapist in the hospital's spinal unit, finished the first half of the race with a time of 5hr, 27min, 39sec. He will attempt to build on his promising performance today.

Fellow Cantabrian Byron Munro sits second in the two-day individual men's race with a time of 5.34.58, while Methven's Rob Nesbitt is just over a minute back clocking 5.36.16 on day one.

Vercoe said his patients served as major motivation for him before the race and that he was hoping to make them proud.

"That's something I draw a lot of inspiration from, my patients there. The determination and strength they've got to work through their tough times.

"I've got a couple of key words on my thighs from one of my patients. Before the race, he told me a wee story about his grandfather and the war and using those words "Kia Kaha".

Kia Kaha means "Stay Strong" in Maori and Vercoe certainly did that on day one.

Vercoe found the 34-kilometre mountain run challenging and ran into difficulty on the way up to the Goat Pass Hut.

"She was a pretty tough run to be honest. It was really slippery up there going to the hut. I took a good fall off one of the big boulders and slipped onto my back and winded myself for a bit.

"I'm sure Rob [Nesbitt] saw it sitting behind me."

Vercoe, who finished eighth in the two-day individual event of the 2011 Coast to Coast, said the boys would be separated from the men today during the 67km kayak down the Waimakariri River. Low river flows should make for some slow paddling times.

"Everyone is paddling on the same river. It's not really a disadvantage. I've paddled in it the last month or two," he said.

"I think the big difference really is you've just got be a lot more confident about getting in the right flow." Kayaking was Vercoe's weak point the last time he competed in the Coast to Coast and he had put in the hard yards since then to improve.

Irish native Fiona Dowling, who now lives in Wellington, is the leader after the first day of the two-day individual women's race.

Dowling, who is doing her first two-day race, posted a time of 6hrs, 8min, 30sec, nearly 19 minutes ahead of the next best women's competitor, Christchurch's Hilary Totty.

Dowling was pleased with how she had gone on day one, but was unsure about her prospects today given kayaking is her weakest discipline.

"It's only day one, so I can't get ahead of myself. [Yesterday] was always going to be my easier day. I wasn't expecting too much. I'm not too flash in the boat and don't know the river too well, so I'll likely go for a swim."

Dowling, who labelled herself "not a great cyclist" managed to avoid a spill on the 55km bike leg. She had been over the mountain run twice before in the lead-up, but found it tricky at times.

"It was a pretty slippery start to the run. I felt a bit more like a beachball than a mountain goat over those boulders," she said.

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In the two-day two person teams, Paul Massie and Robert Loveridge have a four-minute lead over Lex and Nico de Jong after day one. They registered a time of 5hr, 13min, 44sec.

Team Thermatech, consisting of Tania Leslie, Steve Porter and Scott Ronald, have a healthy 17-minute lead in the three person teams' event over the Christ's College trio of Michael Allison, Sam Doyle and Nico Cronshaw. Hanmer Springs' Nick Hirschfeld took out the individual mountain run in a time of 3hr, 26min, 32sec.

MAJOR OVERHAUL ON THE WAY FOR COAST TO COAST

The Coast to Coast's new owners are promising to re-energise the gruelling multisport race as they look to lift falling participation numbers.

Queenstown-based Trojan Holdings Limited bought the event from founder and longtime race director Robin Judkins last May.

Trojan Holdings operate several leading adventure and tourism-based businesses including the Milford and Routeburn tracks, the Mt Cook Hermitage, AJ Hackett Bungy and NZ Ski (Coronet Peak, Remarkables and Mt Hutt ski areas).

In their first year owning the race, they have taken on more of an observer's role, getting to know the intricacies of the 243km dash across the South Island and tapping into the mind of Judkins, who has been involved since the inaugural version in 1983. Judkins will serve as race director for the final time today before he takes on a lesser supporting role.

Trojan Holdings director Mike Davies said that since buying the race they had been talking to the multisport fraternity and planning for next year's event. He promised changes, but said the race itself would look virtually identical.

"You've got to get ahead of the pack. It's still got an iconic name. It's probably one of the best multisport events in the world, but over the last four or five years, the numbers have gone backwards. Hopefully we can get numbers back to the 800s and where we used to be seven or eight years ago."

Last year, five-time Longest Day winner Richard Ussher hit out at the state of the race and identified 10 necessary changes to revitalise it.

This included a reduction in race fees, more prize money, more official time stations for athletes and sponsors and new blood at race management level.

Ussher saluted the wonderful work done by Judkins and said without him there would be no race, but felt a change in ownership would breathe fresh life into the Coast to Coast.

"They're definitely making some good noises about where they want to see the race go. They're taking a really pragmatic approach to it. They know what it takes to market an event or product and deal with all the people and logistics. I think it's a good fit for them," Ussher said.

Davies believed there was huge scope to increase the competitor base.

The number of Cantabrians competing had dropped away since the February 2011 earthquake and he said the entry fee (which is over $1000) was a barrier to many. Davies said he would love to see more people from the North Island and overseas flocking to the event, which could be made easier by renting bicycles and kayaks and providing support crews.

He was also keen to see live timing on the course, which would be relayed back to social network websites like Facebook and Twitter, making it easier for the public to remain informed.

With the rise of other ironman, triathlon and adventure races in New Zealand and overseas during the past decade, Davies said it was important to have a point of difference.

The new owners would look to market the event on a greater scale, tapping into the "big marketing arm" of the other companies they are involved with.

Judkins said there was no question the diversification of sport had been a major challenge for the Coast to Coast.

"It only used to be rugby and netball and that was that."

The effects of the recession could not be under-estimated, with the biggest drop in numbers coming from the urban centres of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

"Once the cities start to pick up again, which it will this year, I see a huge future for the event," Judkins said.

"You have to have the ambition to do it and the determination to do it. Those things are very money dependent. You can't do them without money or time."

Davies said they expected to announce changes in the coming months, once they had completed a debrief of this year's race.

- The Press

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