I have often remarked to myself and my athletes: “You either succeed, or you learn”. What I have probably failed to acknowledge, is that on the odd occasion and with the right mix of fortunes, you can have both. On Saturday when I crossed the line as the 2021 Coast to Coast champion, I knew it had been one of those days.
My plan wasn’t drastically different to other years: use the first half of the day to set a platform for the second. The subtle difference in my approach had more to do with small changes to equipment and logistics than it did to race tactics and strategy. I’d also made a conscious effort to take a more balanced approach to my training build to the race this year. You see, I consider myself 1/3 father & husband, 1/3 coach and 1/3 athlete. So I felt it was important that my time and energy be more appropriately balanced to reflect this. My overall training volume was approximately 75% of what it has been in the past. But energy, enjoyment levels and overall health and vitality benefited hugely.
The race itself turned into an outrageous display of courage and strength by Sam Manson who led us through the first 10 hours. My complacency in a large bunch meant he slipped away unnoticed with a couple of others somewhere along the first 55km bike stage and by the time I had caught wind, he was a few minutes up the road. That was not part of the script, but it was a brilliant move by Sam and I was left with nobody to blame but myself for not being in a better position in the bunch to see it happen.
I shot off into the mountains by foot with Carl Bevins, Scott McDonald, Ryan Kiesanowski and Steve Melton for company and Sam 2.5 minutes ahead. We quickly found our rhythm and I could sense that the effort to run with this group was striking a nice balance between efficiency and pace. I figured if we weren’t losing too much time we’d be best to keep moving along as we were. The trouble was, we had no clue whether we were making or losing time to Sam. It wasn’t until Goat Pass when a media person mentioned 3 minutes in a less-than-convincing tone, that we had a rough idea the time gap wasn’t changing too much.
Somewhere between the pass and the Minga flats (approximately 7km from the end of the run) we lost time and were told Sam’s lead was now around 7 minutes. Admittedly I panicked a little when I heard this and decided it was time to get on with it. I push along to Klondyke Corner as the second athlete to arrive, but 7 minutes in arrears. Certainly not a split to send massive alarm bells off, but equally not one that allowed any complacency. I was on the middle bike and starting to hustle.
On the run down to the kayak I ate a couple of boiled potatoes and told my crew that while my body wasn’t giving me amazing vibes, I was sticking to the plan and looking forward to getting on with the kayak. They reinforced the need to trust my plan and it was just what I needed to hear. When I set off in the kayak from Mt White Bridge, I made sure to keep my heart rate down at a level that I know offers my best chances of a consistent paddle across four hours.
It would be another 3 hours (at Woodstock) before I would get any information on the gap to Sam. Those 3 hours felt like a long time to keep shelving the doubt and continue to believe that I might see Sam again before New Brighton. I just pretended I was paddling with my training mate Hamish Pepper on Lake Wanaka, to help pass the time and feel the simple sense of joy that paddling a kayak brings. The split at Woodstock was 3.45min which was great news, because it meant I had pulled back 2-3 minutes and by Gorge Bridge it was down to 2.50min. As I exited the kayak I knew I had to stay in the moment and keep doing what I had done all day, focus on the job at hand.
The last ride was a bit of a blur. It really just involved putting my head down, eating and drinking and pushing the pedals. Funny how 10-11 hours of racing leaves the brain in a very simplistic state. That is about all I could think to do. Luckily I was able to catch and pass Sam about 25km into the 70km stage. As I went by I put my hand on his back. Nothing was said. But I intended it to be a display of respect and admiration for the way he had raced. I have been runner-up in this race four times, so I knew the feeling and wanted to acknowledge his performance at a time where he was no doubt devastated. As I said at the finish (and as Gordon Walker once said about me in 2010), he will win this race one day.
It is always difficult to capture in words the feeling of achieving something we set our minds and hearts on. But it will never be just about me either. So many people invest in a performance like this and the next challenge is recognising every single one of them. It is impossible to do so of course, but there are some key people I wish to thank before I close this chapter on my 2021 victory.
First my family. Amy, Flynn and Matilda invest in this as much as I do. I will never lose sight of that and will always find ways to invest in each of their own hopes and dreams in return. Mum and Dad were there from Foxton too and these moments are precious. Our ‘other’ parents Will and Joy Harvey held the fort at home in Wanaka with the kids which made leaving them behind much easier knowing how happy they’d be.
My support crew of Simon, Dave, Jenks, Jon and Slade were the dream team. So oiled, so focused and so invested. Thank you boys, I will never forget what we did that day.
My sponsors have made this campaign possible and I simply would not have been on the start line without them. Biggest thanks to the king of outdoor retail Bivouac Outdoor. It isn’t just the equipment they supply but the industry-leading knowledge that comes with it that makes every bit of difference to me and no doubt every one of their customers. Duncan NZ Venison have also been pivotal in this year’s campaign. Every endurance competitor needs to consume 2 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight everyday. For me that is 160g of protein each day. For optimal health and the performance benefits that follow. This is not an easy target to achieve, but for me it became exponentially more tangible with access to a NZ supplied, family-owned venison product with all its natural health properties. Finally The Big Grin Orthodontists in Christchurch and Crombie Lockwood Insurance Brokers helped prop me up to stay focussed on my race. If you are ever in a situation where choosing one of these companies over another presents itself, I sincerely thank you for supporting these people. I think back to the inspiration I got following previous Coast to Coast champions and feel eternal gratitude to their respective sponsors for allowing their performance to take place and radiate inspiration to us all.
My coach Gordon Walker. He’s had his own challenges these past twelve months coaching olympians through uncertain times, but he always had the time and energy to give me. I am also reminded by this guy (who won the race 3 times himself), that our time as an elite athlete is short and its important to enjoy it while it lasts. It also reinforces the need to look beyond sport and see the wider importance of what we do and who we are.
Did my race go to plan? Not at all. But I stuck at it and kept doing the best I could. Would I do anything differently next time? Absolutely I would. Yes, I had success, but I also had learnings. We either succeed or we learn. Or every now and then, we get to have both.