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New Zealand’s South Island: Multi-sport Valhalla

New Zealand' s South IslandAnyone interested in multi-sport racing should take a few weeks off work and spend some time on the South Island of New Zealand.

While the U.S. and Canada have considerably more races, more races with prize money and more gear companies, the South Island is the motherland of solo and team adventure racing.

The South Island has produced some of the world’s top adventure racers: Steve Gurney, Nathan Fa’ave, Neil Jones, Kristina Stode-Penny, Aaron Prince. Races like the Southern Traverse and Speight’s Coast to Coast are classics with strong reputations. And New Zealand companies like MacPac, Icebreaker, Ruahine Kayaks and JKK Racing Kayaks continue to develop leading-edge, sport-specific gear and apparel.

So why are Kiwis so crazy about multi-sport racing? “I think it’s because when Kiwis are young, they’re in the outdoors straightaway,” says Murray Thomas, 40, a veteran multi-sport athlete from Alexandra and two-time winner of the Southern Traverse. “You learn at a young age how to adapt in the outdoors, and that’s what adventure racing is all about. Kiwis are always trying to make things a little more difficult with more challenges, because we’ve grown up learning to overcome those challenges.”

Teammate Quenton Johnston, a native of Australia who has lived in New Zealand for five years, agrees. “It’s a lifestyle thing for the Kiwis,” he says. “And it’s hard not to understand. Look around. It’s a very special place.”

Indeed it is. Combined, the country’s two islands are about the size of California but have a population of only 4 million people — about 65 percent of which inhabit the North Island. The less populated South Island is where the multi-sport action is, not to mention the country’s best races and places for paddling, hiking, climbing, trail running and mountain biking.

Outside Dunedin, the host city of the 2003 Southern Traverse, lies a mixture of lush rolling countryside, spectacular shoreline cliffs, uninhabited alpine lakes, white sand beaches and both calm and raging rivers. It’s one of the cleanest places you’ll ever visit.

Just as there is an obvious respect for the environment in New Zealand, there is also a genuine reverence for multi-sport racing in the mainstream population.

Rugby is the No. 1 sport in New Zealand, and when the All Blacks — the Kiwi national team — play they command the country’s attention. But as much as the Rugby World Cup dominated the TV, radio, newspapers and pub conversations during the week of the Southern Traverse, there was still considerable coverage and discussion the race. Waitresses, bank tellers, gas station attendants and shop owners all wanted to know what was happening on the course.

Daily updates about the Traverse made newspapers and radio and TV broadcasts across the country. Can you imagine media in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago reporting on Primal Quest on a daily basis?

The biggest similarity to the U.S. and Canada? A lack of sponsorship money for good teams. Most of the Kiwi teams in last fall’s race were meagerly backed by small local businesses from their respective regions — bike shops, printing companies, banks, accounting firms.

Even Team Icebreaker Bridgedale, which won the Traverse and New Zealand’s 24-hour race series, was supported only by apparel donations and a small amount of cash from their sponsors. But as, Thomas says, “we do it because we love it. This is who we are.

— B.M.

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