After 117 hours of climbing volcanoes, rafting down white water rapids and battling through jungle on a far-flung island in the Indian Ocean, “retired” multisport athlete Fleur Pawsey is now a world champion of adventure racing. Jim Kayes reports.
Fleur Pawsey often doubts herself before a race. Wonders if she is good enough and questions why she’s in the field.
Most times she answers herself with an emphatic performance that ends, if not in victory, then within sight of the winner.
It’s been like that ever since she steadily worked her way through the field at the iconic Coast-to-Coast race, where she came “almost last” in her first attempt as part of a mixed team in 2000.
That’s when she caught the multi-sport bug. She returned year after year, progressing from team to individual, from two-day to the longest day, steadily moving up through the placings.
Fourteen times she’s stood on the start-line of the Coast-to-Coast at Kumara Beach; five times she’s competed in the longest day, winning it once and finishing second twice.
She’s been an adventure racer, on and off, since about 2008. So when Pawsey lined up alongside Chris Forne, Nathan Fa’aeve and Stu Lynch in the New Zealand Avaya team at the adventure racing world championships, she was no rookie.
It was, she thinks, her 13th adventure race, but this was a first in many other ways. And she was nervous.
It was her first time racing with Forne, Fa’aeve and Lynch, who are the world elite of adventure racing – the longer, tougher and more mentally challenging multisport discipline.
They were the defending champions at the world championships on Reunion Island – a French colony sitting in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar. They’ve been the world champions every year since 2014. Her three team-mates, in fact, now have 20 world titles between them.
Pawsey was a ring-in, brought into the team after Wanaka’s Joanna Williams – a world champion for the last two years – broke her leg skiing about eight weeks earlier.
Pawsey was in shape, but she was she ready? Would she be able to keep up with a team that had set the pace for so long? She was about to find out.
“Stepping into the fastest team in the world is pretty daunting,” admits Pawsey, a teaching fellow at Canterbury University, where she is completing a PhD in organisational psychology.
“Self-doubt is not new for me – I have it before most races, but I really didn’t want to let them down.”
She’d been training for the 60km Kepler Challenge (which was raced last weekend), so she was in reasonable running shape, but she knew that wasn’t going to be enough.
So, with seven weeks to prepare, she eased her kayak onto the Avon River, increased the miles on her bike, and slipped on her tramping shoes and headed for the hills – lots of them, as big as she could find.
Adventurer racing isn’t a sprint. It’s five days of tramping, climbing, kayaking, abseiling and sometimes swimming through terrain that, on Reunion Island, included a volcanic climb, white water and jungle.
Add in some tropical heat and it’s easy to see why Pawsey was nervous.
“I wasn’t worried for my own health, I was worried if I would make it through the day, if I’d be able to keep up. I felt under pressure throughout the race,” she says.
Her teammates were superb, easing her load by carrying some of her gear and ensuring she could stay with them.
“I was amazed when I made it to the end. I knew it was going to be tough, but the course was even more demanding than I’d expected it to be.”
And when they finished – first yet again – in a time of 117 hours and one minute, it wasn’t exhilaration she felt, but more a sense of relief. The joy would come later. It’s always that way.
“There are moments of joy throughout a race but it usually comes once the race is over and you can reflect on what you’ve achieved,” she says.
That was the case on Reunion Island. Pawsey found some of the scenery breathtaking and enjoyed the white water section, but it was a race where just finishing was the primary goal.
Simone Maier knows how she feels. The German-born Kiwi’s Team Yealands – the other New Zealand team in the world series – finished seventh, but for Maier that was a victory. Two years ago, she was part of a Swedish team that withdrew from the world champs in Australia when one of the men busted his ribs.
“We were stoked with that result,” the Wanaka based 38-year-old says. “The goal was to finish and then top 10 [of 65 teams] was on the list.”
Maier, who moved to New Zealand 12 years ago, has a similar love of adventure racing as Pawsey, when it takes them to remote spots.
Perhaps that’s not surprising when she explains how she ended up in New Zealand. “I wanted to run away from Germany and when you look at a globe, New Zealand is as far away as it gets,” she says.
Having swum, done triathlons and competed in inline speed skating in Germany, Maier fell into adventure racing when she moved to Wanaka through her love of the outdoors. She’s now a regular on the adventure racing circuit.
Pawsey turned her back on international adventure racing in 2010 after she smashed her knee into a rock, and realised the medical advice that it was “stuffed” was spot on.
She’d also spent years ignoring the aches and pains of her overworked body, realising in hindsight she should have stretched more and worked harder on her core strength.
“I was tired, my body was broken and I wasn’t enjoying it. I’d retired from international racing and didn’t think I’d ever do it again,” she says.
She’d kept her hand in though, racing in New Zealand’s GODZone multi-day adventure race from 2013 to 2016, but then walked away from that too.
And still the racing bug never quite left her.
The 39-year-old grew up on a farm in North Canterbury. She rode horses and stayed active, but sports weren’t her thing.
It wasn’t till she was asked to be the female part of a mixed Coast-to-Coast team that she was “captured by the challenge”.
“It’s the complete sport,” she says. “It’s a huge physical challenge but it’s just as big a mental challenge too.”
It’s a test of teamwork and communication, of race intelligence and strategy, endurance, strength, skill and bravery.
Each race is educational as you learn about yourself and your teammates, and you realise that just as you have to help them, so too do you need to let them help you.
“Every day you think ‘how will I be able to keep going tomorrow’?”
Pawsey loved racing with the legendary New Zealand team, named Avaya, after their California-based tech company sponsor.
She marvelled at their ability to navigate on the go, at their race tactics, speed and endurance.
“It was a tough but incredible experience racing with them. There was no reprieve for five days and it was mentally and physically challenging, but it was also awesome.”
So is she still retired?
“Ooh that’s a tough question. It was a reminder of all the great things about adventure racing, but also of how tough it is,” she replies.
“You can say I’m not as retired as I was.”