Masochism and magic – the Coast to Coast
By rock, river and road a procession of desperate athletes struggle 239 km across the grain of the South Island in pursuit of self-fulfilment and, for a lucky few, a place in the record books. More determined than most, West Coaster Steve Maitland tackles the mountain run. He has competed twice before in the two-day race, but 1995 was his first shot at the single-day traverse.
Inside the theatre royal hotel at Kumara two groups of patrons eyed each other across their jugs of beer. The locals—hardbitten, taciturn West Coasters—viewed with some scepticism the bearded beanpoles and racing sardines who had arrived in town to tackle the first Coast to Coast. Ever since organiser Robin Judkins had breezed in from Christchurch several months earlier to drum up support, they had been hearing about this harebrained event. In a place where not a lot had happened since Prime Minister Richard Seddon’s death in 1906, and where the major festive occasion was the annual horse races, it had been the talk of the town.
Judkins’ idea was a 239-kilometre race from one side of the South Island to the other, starting at Kumara beach and finishing at the Christchurch suburb of Sumner. He had told them that some of the competitors would be able to do it in two days: cycle to the foothills of the Southern Alps, run up and over the mountains, kayak down the Waimakariri River and cycle across the Canterbury Plains.
A number of keen hunters living in Kumara were outright cynical—they knew the Deception Valley and the Goat Pass route into the Mingha Valley and out to Klondyke Corner, the proposed 26 km mountain run section for the event. It was a two-day tramp, but this cocky Judkins fella said his athletes would run it in half a day. It had raised a few laughs down at the Theatre Royal.
Now, on the eve of the first Coast to Coast, the athletes were here, downing ales along with the locals; a final fling before tomorrow’s big challenge. Most were tampers, mountaineers and canoeists. Some were long distance runners and cyclists, lean and stringy after years of pushing themselves in the outdoors. The mountaineer Graeme Dingle was a name some of the locals knew; many felt he was in with a good chance of winning. His first traverse of the Southern Alps with Jill Tremaine in 1971 had impressed many a Coaster, and his recent 5000 km traverse of the Himalayas from Sikkim to Pakistan was an outstanding achievement.
Down the road at the Empire, one regular drinker, a bushman who had not heard about the Coast to Coast, was startled when he came into the pub after work that Friday night in February. It was the sight of the main street lined with vehicles carrying canoes on roof racks that amazed him. “Canterbury must be flooded,” he said. “They must have finally got their rain.”
In the Richard Seddon Memorial Hall, members of the local school PTA were preparing a mountain of food for the competitors, officials and supporters. Salads, ham on the bone, chicken, casserole, macaroni cheese, pavlova, fruit salad—it was the carbo-load before the storm.
At Kumara Junction, where most of the competitors were staying in the school grounds, the scene resembled pictures of the town’s early gold mining days, with tents springing up all over the place. Bikes were assembled, tyres pumped and repumped, gear checked.
After the feast, Robin Judkins mounted the stage with the look of a mad inventor whose creation is about to be unveiled. The air was tense. Foremost in most people’s minds was the question: Is it possible for 79 people to kayak, cycle and run from one side of New Zealand to the other in two days?
With a mixture of jokes about the weather, banter about some of the competitors and a pretty formidable list of dos and don’ts, Judkins set the tone for a speech he has now given 13 years in a row. Under the steely gaze of Seddon, his portrait hanging beside the stage, the challenge was given and received: to race from coast to coast. Kumara has never been the same since.
Around 4.15 A.M. the first alarm clock shattered the silence. It had gone off 45 minutes early. A light shower of rain was falling. By 5 A.M. another battery of alarms got people moving from their tents. Soon gas stoves were going, breakfast was gulped, tents dismantled and cycle helmets strapped on. As the entourage headed down to the beach, the rain eased. The weather seemed to be on the mend.
The sharp smell of salt cleared stuffy heads on grey Kumara beach. There was a light southerly blowing as the starters lined up a few metres from the sea. The forecast was for fine weather. Some of the mountaineers could make out the shapes of Mounts Cook and Tasman far to the south.
Graeme Dingle jiggled and stretched alongside fellow mountaineers Sandy Sandblom and Pete Squires. Fortytwo-year-old Ivan McDonald had, as part of his training, cut down from 40 to 20 cigarettes a day. Joe Sherrifff, an English anaesthetist working in Dunedin and a former member of the British orienteering team, looked to be the top overseas contender. Eric Hunter, the world veteran road running champion in 1982, was the oldest competitor at 49. Top cyclist and former South Island white water kayak champion Dirk Passchier, a 19-yearold plasterer from Christchurch, was among a number of teenage competitors who could givd the favourites a hurry-up. The youngest competitor was Dunedin’s Ian Edmond, a 15-year-old from Otago Boys High School who had entered in the teams section. Emma de Lacey, at 25, was the youngest female competitor.
At seven o’clock the tension was palpable. It intensified as Judkins delayed the start to wait for clouds to shift and the light to come right for the television cameras. Then, adding insult to injury, he revealed a secret surprise he had mentioned to the media the previous evening: all the starters were pushed back, ankle deep, into the foaming Tasman breakers. Before the grumbling died, the starting gun was fired and a mass of runners sprang forward, jostling each other across the dunes, manoeuvring for the leading positions on the three-kilometre sprint to the bikes.
By the time the leaders reached Kumara the field was spread and the cyclists were able to see the snowcapped mountains and passes they would have to run over before the day ended. A crowd of Kumara residents gathered in the main street outside the town hall and general store to watch and wave as the cycles whirled through town. A few were top-shelf racing machines, but most were ordinary 10-speed bikes of the kind you’d find outside any workplace in the early 1980s. Some had full mudguards and carriers, and one had a baby seat (minus the baby). Bunches formed during the gradual climb uphill through thick podocarp forest along State Highway 6.
First across the emergency footbridge over the Deception River and leading the way to Goat Pass was Ian Edmond—a daunting task for a 15-year-old boy, and a talking point Judkins later acknowledged by restricting the race age to 18. Few would have predicted that seven years later Edmond would line up to represent New Zealand in the inaugural triathlon of the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, and that in 1995 he would win the one-day category of the 13th Coast to Coast.
Joe Sherriff, in an article for an English magazine, described how the mountain race developed for the leading runners. “There was no rest after the cycling, so, wobbly kneed and clutching a cheese sandwich, I lurched off on foot. There is no track, as the river goes up through the beech and rata forest. Progress was made by boulder-hopping up the banks, with frequent river crossings. One competitor counted 41 crossings. The first part of the descent into the Mingha Valley was great, but most was a tortuous undulating path traversing steep ground through the forest followed by several kilometres of flat, open boulder-covered ground. My legs became very tired . . .”
Sherriff had overhauled Edmond during the run, but near the end was himself overtaken by 23-year-old Christchurch runner Greg Mitchell, who crossed the line in 3:30:13. Dingle was close behind them. Like most competitors, they were clad and equipped for a mountain trek—woolly singlets, tramping boots and daypacks for spare clothes and first aid kits. In future years, lycras, lightweight running shoes and “Camelbak” drinking systems would replace the mountain gear in the quest for faster times.
Klondyke Corner, near Arthur’s Pass, became another tent town as the Coast to Coast’s first motley community settled into the overnight transition area. Some sunbathed, others prepared bikes and kayaks for tomorrow’s paddle and ride to Christchurch. The first Coast to Coast had crossed the Main Divide; the rest was downriver and downhill all the way.
After 13 years, the Coast to Coast has become a New Zealand sporting institution. For the last six years it has had a capacity field, following various increases to the limit allowed by the Department of Conservation, which controls the Arthur’s Pass National Park where the run takes place. The current race limit is 650 competitors: 100 individuals in the one-day race introduced in 1987 and dubbed “the Longest Day,” and 250 individuals and 150 two-person teams in the two-day event. Judkins opens and closes entry applications for just a few days each June, and revels in the fact that it’s a sell-out. He calls the Longest Day the World Multisport Championship—a self-proclamation no one seems to have disputed—and has commanded unbroken sponsorship from New Zealand Breweries for 12 of the 13 years.
Some 7500 New Zealanders and nearly 400 foreigners have taken part, the top echelon of competitors returning year by year in pursuit of nearly $150,000 in prizes, including a vehicle for anyone who breaks the time barrier. For a good half of the field, however, it’s something they’ll do just once for the personal challenge and satisfaction of finishing—and the kudos of being a card-carrying Coast to Coaster.
For Judkins, 46, the event has made his name and, if not his fortune, a good living. Outspoken, irreverent, and not one to suffer fools, Judkins has always been something of a rebel, but a likable one: hyperactive, gushing with enthusiasm, opinionated. He worked for ten years as a ski patroller and adventure guide before starting in the eventing business. His debut was the Fresh Up Ironman in 1979—a multidiscipline race in the rivers and mountains of Wanaka. He followed that with a Grand Slam series of five ski races and a couple of unsuccessful rock concerts in 1982.
Broke in 1983, but fizzing over the idea of a running, cycling and kayaking race from one coast to the other—originally planned to go from Haast to the Clutha River mouth in Otago—Judkins began to assemble a cast of officials, sponsors and supporters, and made ready to lift the curtain on his great mountain race.
Now he is well off from his events, including the million-dollar Xerox Challenge in 1990: a non-stop, 22-day race from Cape Reinga to Bluff which remains a one-off until he can find a sponsor willing to part with a seven-figure cheque. Whether it’s a mean streak, arrogance or financial independence—or perhaps a bit of each—he’s been bold enough to publicly thumb his nose at detractors (especially conservationists who want sport kept out of the back country) and demanding sponsors, confident that he’s got the formula right for endurance events that succeed because they traverse the rugged New Zealand landscape, inspire ordinary folk to flock along and create the perfect blend of mystique, masochism and media magic.
Joe Sherriff’s 1983 winning time of 14:11:42 long ago paled into what is now regarded as ordinary; 15 hours or better is the present qualifying time for a two-dayer wanting to enter the Longest Day. The current record stands at 10:34:37, the 1994 one-day time of Christchurch GP Keith Murray who, on an average daily training schedule of just a couple of hours and a race diet of Raro and Gingernuts, blitzed the more serious athletes. In doing so, he defied the Coast to Coast’s cultish norm of going full-time for the final few months prior to the race if you wanted to win, and proved that fanatical devotion to preparation and build-up is still no substitute for natural talent and 5 physical prowess.
The early years of 1983 to 1986 m,z were the dispensation of mountain men and women. You were tough and you had a track record in the outdoors, and winning wasn’t the ‘d name of the game. Heavy rain and flooded rivers in 1984 and 1985 kept the event hard, exclusively for the bush-hardened.
In 1986 they broke 12 hours, thanks to previous experience and perfect conditions. But the advent of the Longest Day in 1987 brought a new level of media hype to the race, and suddenly athletes from other codes came aboard. The curtain fell on the hillbilly era of soggy singlets and long johns, homespun jerseys, lace-up Buller gumboots, frame packs and podgy kayaks. The low-tech style of the race gave way to high-tech everything. Kayak manufacturers came up with sleek, six-metre rockets, and trainers, coaches and professional motivators were employed by the top competitors. There were aero bars for the bikes and power bars for the bodies, Kevlar kayaks and titanium alloy bike frames.
Pre-race attention was given to training schedules, diet, course knowledge and streamlining of transitions.
And while hunter-turned-multisporter Russell Prince’s first winning one-day time of 12:19:51 set a new record, a keen pair of team-mates slashed an hour off the previous best team time to finish in 10:51:46, inspiring a new generation of speedsters.
For the next six years, until Keith Murray came along, the limelight was occupied by trans-Tasman rivalry between world marathon kayaking champion John Jacoby from Australia and a nuggety Kiwi with extreme dedication to technology and training: Steve Gurney. Progressively, they brought the race record down. Their sights set on a 12-hour barrier prize of a $35,000 car in 1988, Jacoby won the race but missed the prize by 2 minutes 59 seconds. Next year he scored the vehicle, this time a Suzuki 4WD, in a time of 11:27:19, hotly pursued by Gurney and Prince.
Jacoby took a break in 1990, though the carrot was up-sized to a BMW and the time barrier was set back to 11 hours. This was just the target that Gurney, the unemployed biomedical engineer, now training full-time, needed for a goal. Placed 22nd in 1986, third in 1987, second in 1988 and 1989, he was hungry to win. By a loophole in the rules, he planned to ride the cycle leg to Christchurch in a fully-enclosed, aerodynamic shell designed by him and Nelson kayak maker Grahame Sisson. Hidden until the final moment, the pod enabled Gurney to hit speeds of up to 60 kph as he blasted and swerved his way ahead of the field, averaging 44 kph on his way to Sumner.
For much of the race it seemed he might break the elusive 11-hour barrier, but finally he missed the mark by a matter of minutes. Judkins, himself always cavalier about rules and authority, loved the attention Gurney’s innovation brought to the race. But there were objections and news stories afterwards, and for months the issue was hotly debated until pressure was applied by the sponsors, forcing Judkins to announce pods and attachments would be outlawed in future.
For Gurney and potential copy-cats, however, this served only to make them more determined to streamline their gear within the bounds of the rules, and to concentrate on physical conditioning. Gurney put a lot of design and labouring time into building prototypes of a long, narrow Sisson kayak called the Evolution, now the most popular racing boat in the event. He also did his maths, calculating where he could make gains on which particular parts of the course, using a stopwatch and schedules of his best split times mounted on his bike and kayak to calculate his progress and make adjustments during the race.
With the BMW on offer again in 1991, both Gurney and Prince walloped Jacoby in times, respectively, of 10:56:14, 11:17:46 and 11:20:57—Gurney a triumphant BMW owner at last. The weather spoiled their chances of a new record in 1992, loss of form in 1993 deprived all the top placers of the grand prize and in 1995 Murray, Gurney and Jacoby weren’t there to set the pace.
And so it goes on for the elite of the race, with new names continuing to emerge, and regulars such as representative cyclist and national mountain biking champion Kathy Lynch capturing media attention for their all-out commitment to multisport.
Lynch’s 1994 women’s record of 12:38:31 capped two years of finishing in the top 20 overall—well ahead of any other female. After that effort, and rumblings among women that separate time barrier prizes should apply to them and the men, Lynch vowed she would not return to the Coast to Coast until a car was put up for the women. Judkins agrees it would be better to have a separate $35,000 vehicle for men and women instead of one $75,000 luxury 4WD only winnable by the best male, but his sponsors disagree.
Pressure for the women’s cause, and the passage of time, may yet change that. Meantime, the race is primarily a male domain—blatantly serving the beer sponsor’s advertising campaign targeting men—with usually no more than 10 individual one-day and 30 two-day woman entrants.
Like most great sporting events, the vagaries of bad luck, uncertain weather, changing rules, colourful characters and public attention have added spice to the Coast to Coast.
On average, there’s a 40 per cent chance of wet, stormy weather for the race. In 1984, just the second race, the weather did its worst. Michelle Gammie, a 19year-old university student, almost drowned during an eight-hour ordeal on the mountain run. She missed her footing on an early river crossing and was swept 50 metres down a series of rapids. Thrown against a rock, she managed to hold on, climb up and sit there, bruised, scared and shivering, trying to work up enough courage to get back into the river and carry on. After 10 minutes she ventured on. But fatigued, and perhaps a little dazed, Gammie missed a direction marker near Goat Pass and kept climbing for an hour before she realised her mistake.
The rain continued overnight and turned the Waimakariri River into a swollen torrent. “It’s like a war zone down there,” reported television producer Ian Taylor from a helicopter hovering above the river. Minutes later, the helicopter picked up a competitor clinging to a rock, and then radioed a jetboat skipper to help struggling kayakers stuck on riverbanks. The cameraman aboard filmed three empty kayaks floating upside down. Eleven kayakers gave up, one canoe broke in half and the river gorge was littered with paddles and bits of fibreglass.
Later that day, while early finishers relaxed at Sumner, Christchurch disc jockey James Daniels was setting new records on the river—his time for the kayaking section was 12:42:07. The official race doctor, Rob Campbell, told how he watched Daniels and three other paddlers chum up to get down the river. “Daniels would have fallen into the water 20 times,” the doctor said. “He really had a difficult time of it.” When Campbell took Daniels’ temperature as he got out of his kayak, it was two degrees below normal core body heat. In spite of that he was not hypothermic, and after half an hour of warming up with blankets, massage and hot liquids, he and his three buddies pressed on to Christchurch in total times of a few minutes under 23 hours.
It rained heavily again in 1985. Among the starters was 1984 winner John Howard, bandaged like an Egyptian mummy from a bike accident 10 days earlier. He had crashed while going over a cattle stop at 60 kph in the Port Hills of Christchurch, ripping flesh off his back and rump and requiring skin grafts to an elbow and hip. During the first cycle stage, the leading bunch of 60 riders encountered a stray flock of about 30 sheep. Amid swerving and shouting cyclists, Aucklander Mark Trotman’s $2000 bicycle hit a sheep and he went flying horizontally through the air, passing other riders before landing with a thud. Howard was in the bunch, too, and said he had “never been so scared in my life,” yet he stuck with the group to finish a minute behind the leader in third place.
American Dave Horning, who competed in the first race in 1983, was back again in 1985. He described the running conditions in the American Triathlete magazine: “One moment we would be splashing upstream in ankle-deep water, and the next we would be in over our heads. They should have called this section the swimming leg. It often took a team effort to make the more treacherous river crossings.”
Two runners were air-lifted from the mountain section, one suffering from exhaustion and cold, the other injured when he ran over a cliff after his glasses fogged up in the rain. It was two months before he could walk again.
Another competitor blighted by the conditions was Aucklander Athol Gardiner, who lost his false teeth on one of many unplanned swims on the paddle section. Then, when he emerged from the river he couldn’t find his team-mate who was to do the cycle leg to Christchurch. After 10 minutes he was discovered asleep in the bushes. Eventually the pair finished the event.
In 1992, after seven years of relatively good conditions, the rains returned. Torrents fell during the mountain run, forcing Judkins to ferry stranded tail-end runners by helicopter from islands and river banks on the raging Mingha. Eighty-knot bullets of wind lashed the course, and talk of mass rescues sent a fever of excitement through the media corp. A hypothermic runner was choppered in from Goat Pass and whisked away by ambulance.
It took the last dozen tail-enders 10 hours to do the “run,” among them 71-year-old John Gillies, one of a handful of septegenarians who have done the race.
The rain didn’t stop all day or night-120 mm in 24 hours. Next morning, officials decided to abort the river section. This meant one-dayers would have to run the highway over Arthur’s Pass instead of through the mountains, and from Klondyke Corner everyone had to ride the 160 km to Christchurch. It was a contingency course that no one wanted or enjoyed in the 10th anniversary year of the event—a victory for the elements that reminded everyone who, really, was boss.
There have been bloody accidents over the years, but none of them fatal. The worst was a mass cycle crash in 1987 caused by a photographer who, misjudging distances because he was looking through a wide-angle lens, stepped out into the path of oncoming riders about 20 km into the race. Someone swerved, a wheel touched another and instantly 20 riders crashed and skidded along the tar seal, searing and ripping skin in a mass of twisted metal. One of the riders who crashed heavily was 53year-old Eric Hunter of Lyttelton. He was in great pain from a broken collarbone, but Craig Adair, former Olympic cyclist acting as event mechanic, helped fix his bike, sat him on the seat and pushed him off along the road. “Adair lent all his back-and was totally cleaned out of spares,” Doug Lomax, one of the crash victims, said.
Probably the ugliest accident happened before the race even began in 1994, when cyclists were assembling at Kumara prior to walking down to the beach. In the semi-darkness, 25-year-old Timaru accountant Adrian Galvin and his friend Andrew Bates were riding slowly along to the bike stands when they were struck from behind by a car heading towards Greymouth. Bates escaped with leg injuries, but Galvin was rushed to Christchurch Hospital with serious head injuries. He woke up five days later and could not recall anything about the accident. Two months later, he still suffered from affected balance, speech, and memory, but over the next five months he gradually improved. He made a full comeback and competed in 1995.
Blood, sweat, tears and a good deal of pain were endured by leg amputee Steve Maitland before he entered the race in 1993. One of nine children from a Hokitika family, the Ross School caretaker had his leg amputated below the knee after a motorcycle accident near Kumara Junction in 1972. He trained for four years before his first race, learning to run on an artificial limb, and cycle with it strapped to the pedal. He completed the mountain section by walking in a very respectable 7 hours 9 minutes, stopping every five minutes to change his stump sock because the stump was wasting, and swinging “like an ape” on trees and branches wherever possible. In his kayak, though, because of his extraordinary upper body strength, he was among the best, recording a river time of 4 hours 31 minutes, barely 15 minutes behind Steve Gurney’s all-time kayaking record. In 1994 Maitland returned to slash 1 hour 45 minutes off his 1993 time, and in 1995 he competed in the one-day event.
O Lord, Help me not to come last like last year,” read the 1986 programme’s comment of 28-year-old Marton truck driver Harry Docherty, whose 1985 time was 22:43:46. Providence smiled, and he was given Paul King, a missionary recently returned from the Philippines. King did little training for the race, and bought himself a waveski only two days beforehand. After 23 capsizes, he was virtually assured of last place-80 minutes behind happy Harry on the river section. When King crossed the Sumner finish line in a time of 22:44:34, his feet were blistered and he slumped to the sand. A nurse gingerly removed his shoes and Judkins poured cool sponsor’s product over his feet. According to a journalist, they steamed like water spilt on a hot stove. King later hobbled off towards the Pacific Ocean, kneeling at the water’s edge to splash his face and doubtless give thanks for having made it.
The dubious honour of the record for the slowest time in the history of the race belongs, curiously, to a Christchurch foot specialist named Greg Coyle. Competing in 1988 at the age of 31, he clocked in just shy of 24 hours, crossing the line around 8.15 P.M. One reason he gave for taking so long was a back problem that forced him to wear a brace a week before the race. “My wife said I was mad, and so did my doctor and specialist.” Coyle was philosophical, though. “The whole thing about the Coast to Coast is not times or winning or what place you got. It’s about knowing there is an objective, and no matter what happens you are going to reach that objective. Every stage is a battle. If I make it to that stage, I make the next one. So you feel fresh at every stage, and the thing takes over again. I’d say that two-thirds of New Zealanders who can stand up can do the Coast to Coast. The only thing stopping them is their mind saying, ‘I can’t do it’.”
I’ve done it. Four times, and it would have been five if I hadn’t totalled my $4000 aluminium racing bike in the carpark of a Greymouth hotel on the morning of the race. Stupidly, I forgot to tighten the handlebars properly, and on a practice ride at 5.30 in the morning I ploughed straight into a curb, dashing me and my fancy machine—attached to my feet by clip-on pedals—to the ground. Phut went everything: a gear lever broken off, handlebars bent, an elbow cut to the bone. I was out of the race.
Feeling like an idiot—all dressed up and nowhere to go—I sat in a media car for the rest of the morning, trailing cyclists in a hot stupor of self-pity and envy. I recognised the confident faces of returnees, saw the fear of new zealots riding shoulder to shoulder and spoke to spoke for the first time. Why, I asked myself, do so many keep coming back for the pain and the glory of a repeat performance? Why, in fact, does anyone enter who doesn’t stand a chance of going to the podium for a prize?
Everyone talks of the challenges met, the fitness achieved, the adrenalin rush experienced, the friends made—the sheer enjoyment of New Zealand wilderness that the course offers. And yes, all that is true. But from the Coast to Coasters I’ve met, I see that the race is also a diversion, a reason to break from the routine, something to get obsessed about. A chance to escape a boring job, a stale relationship at home, perhaps even a reason to keep going when mid-life crisis sets in. We’ve all got them—our private reasons.
And we come from all walks of life. In every year’s competitor list there are sales reps and police officers, accountants and truck drivers, plus an eclectic smattering of oddballs: a lion tamer, an Italian prince, someone who described himself as a chocolate fish sexer. Alongside the names are terse comments that give insight into the mystery of motivation. A Wellington shop assistant: “dream of greatness.” An Eketahuna farmer: “love punishment.” A Kaiapoi student: “sure as hell beats studying.” A fireman: “sure as hell beats waiting for pyromanicas to let loose.” A herd tester: “sure beats looking at cows.” A bank manager: “secret desire to qualify for the World Championship.” A mother: “I’d do anything to get away from small children.” A teacher: “who said teachers are brainy? I’m back again!”
And they will keep coming for the same reasons. And keep pummelling their bodies and carving minutes off their times and exulting in the fact that you can touch the sea on one side of this country, and pound and paddle and pedal until you touch it again on the other.
“Why die wondering?” wrote 45-year-old Nigel Radbourne in the 1995 competitor list.