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Triathlon and multisport

by David Green

Tens of thousands of New Zealanders take part each year in multisport events – from kids’ triathlons encouraging youngsters to give it a go, to gruelling multi-day events that cover hundreds of kilometres and challenging terrain. New Zealanders have also done well in international multisport competitions.


Triathlon

Multisport events combine a number of disciplines, nearly always including running and cycling. They are contested by both individuals and teams.

Triathlon formats

Most popular are triathlons, which combine swimming, cycling and running, usually in that order. Quick transitions between the disciplines are a key to success.

Standard triathlon formats are:

  • sprint – 750-metre swim, 20-kilometre cycle, 5-kilometre run
  • intermediate/Olympic – 1,500-metre swim, 40-kilometre cycle, 10-kilometre run
  • long-course/half-ironman – 1.9-kilometre swim, 90-kilometre cycle, 21.1-kilometre run
  • ultra-distance/ironman – 3.8-kilometre swim, 180-kilometre cycle, 42.2-kilometre run.

Less versatile athletes contest duathlons (running and cycling) and biathlons (swimming and running).

Triple threat

In 1896 Donatien Libeau of Banks Peninsula challenged all comers in Australasia to a contest at walking, cycling and rowing for a stake of £200 (equivalent to more than $36,000 in 2013). No one took up his invitation.

Triathlon origins

Races combining running, swimming and cycling were staged in France from the early 1900s. The first modern triathlon was held in San Diego in 1974. Created to settle bragging rights among runners, cyclists and swimmers, the triathlon rapidly became an event in its own right.

The Les Mills triathlon in Auckland in 1979 may have been New Zealand’s first. Soon elite sportspeople like runner Allison Roe, cyclist Roger Nevatt and swimmer Rick Wells were enjoying this new event. The New Zealand Triathlon Association was founded in 1985 and affiliated with the Federation of International Triathlons. The International Triathlon Union was set up in 1989.

Mass participation

Triathlon New Zealand has a reputation for innovative administration through initiatives such as its no-fees promotion of TRIBE (an online triathlon community), which saw membership triple to 6,500 in 2011. The number of participants in triathlons and duathlons rose from 45,000 in 2000 to 96,000 in 2009. NZ Triathlon and Multisport magazine reached 89,000 readers in 2011, and 323,000 Kiwis followed the sport in the media.

With such levels of participation, there are many local events for all comers. A typical local triathlon is the sprint-distance Surfbreaker, held annually at Mt Maunganui since 1985. A prelude to major triathlon events in the New Year, it attracts several hundred entrants. Ironman legend Cameron Brown won the Surfbreaker seven times out of nine attempts between 1991 and 2002.

The Marlborough Women’s Triathlon, founded in 1985, was New Zealand’s first multisport event for women only. Despite the name, it had two running legs, two cycling legs and no swim. Women-only triathlons proliferated in the 2000s. In the Special K series, launched in 2003, women swam 300 metres, cycled 10 kilometres and ran or walked 3 kilometres. More than 15,000 took part in the first three seasons. It became the Contact TriWoman series in 2010 and was replaced by the Bissell Women’s Series in 2013. SPARC’s Real Women’s duathlon series ran until 2012; from 2013 the Bissell series included duathlons.

750 competitors registered for the inaugural Waikato–Tainui Mighty River Power TriMāori at Lake Karapiro in October 2012.

Children’s participation

Children compete over distances starting at around a 50-metre swim, 4-kilometre cycle and 1-kilometre run for seven-year-olds. The first Weet-Bix Kids TRYathlon at St Heliers, Auckland, in 1992 attracted about 500 participants. In 2013 nearly 20,000 children competed in one of the 13 TRYathlons around the country. Local event organisers and councils ran similar events.


International success in triathlon

New Zealanders have had considerable success in international triathlon events.

Rick Wells and Erin Baker

Former swimmer Rick Wells came third at the first official world championships in Avignon, France, in 1989, and second in 1991. He had won unofficial world short- and long-course titles in 1987.

Erin Baker is New Zealand’s greatest woman triathlete. As a schoolgirl, she was a top-flight swimmer and distance runner. In 1984 she won the first of more than 100 triathlons. In 1985 she was the first woman to complete an ironman triathlon in under 10 hours and won the first world triathlon title. More world titles saw her named New Zealand Sportswoman of the Year and Supreme Award winner at the Halberg Awards in 1989. Baker won eight world multisport titles and also came close to Olympic selection as a distance runner. In 2013 she was the only multi-sportsperson in the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.

Wells and Baker triumphed when triathlon was a demonstration sport at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games. With this exposure and success, local races proliferated. Sarah Harrow won a world junior title in 1993 and Jenny Rose won the ITU World Cup series in 1994.

The vital leg

Which triathlon discipline is the most important? The swim – if a competitor loses contact with the leaders, they must push harder on the cycle leg to catch up and won’t have enough strength left for the run.

Biathlon and duathlon

In 1975 New Zealand water-polo representative Ross Patterson won the first national biathlon championships – a 3-mile (4.8-kilometre) cross-country run followed by a half-mile swim in Wellington Harbour – and then the biathlon world title in the United States.

Jamie Hunt won consecutive world duathlon championships in the 1990s. Terrenzo Bozzone won the world junior duathlon title aged 16 in 2001, and again the following year.

The 2000s

Hamish Carter, Bevan Docherty and Andrea Hewitt were New Zealand’s most successful Olympic-distance triathletes in the 2000s. Carter was the world’s top-ranked male triathlete for five years. He learnt from failure at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, coming third in the first Commonwealth Games triathlon (Manchester, 2002) and winning gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Docherty won the 2004 world championships and finished second behind Carter at Athens. He went on to win Commonwealth Games silver (Melbourne, 2006) and Olympic bronze (Beijing, 2008).

Andrea Hewitt was under-23 world champion in 2005 within months of her first triathlon. She won bronze at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, one place behind fellow Kiwi Samantha Warriner. Hewitt had three placings in world championships between 2009 and 2012. Terenzo Bozzone was junior world champion in 2002 and 2003. New Zealand won bronze in the mixed team relay at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Later that year Tayler Reid won the under-23 world championships.

Prominent triathlon coaches include Jack Ralston, the mentor of Hamish Carter and Cameron Brown, and John Hellemans, whose star protégés included Erin Baker and Andrea Hewitt.

Financial support

Triathlon’s success from the 1990s led to increased financial support. The Sports Foundation provided nearly $1 million to assist preparation for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, at which triathlon was contested for the first time. In the 2010s Contact Energy sponsored an annual Tri Series for men and women, a Duathlon Series and the national schools championships.

Comparative failure at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and the lack of obvious successors to the stars of the 2000s threatened a less rewarding future at the elite level. Triathlon received $6.155 million in high-performance funding during the London Olympic cycle, and was allocated $5.6 million for 2013–16. Annual funding for 2017 and 2018 was cut to $725,000. In 2013 a National High Performance Centre was set up in Cambridge.

Promoter Arthur Klap organised world championship events in Wellington in 1994 and Queenstown in 2003. Auckland hosted the final round of the world series in 2012 and the first round in 2013.


Ironman

Ironman events comprise a 3.8-kilometre open-water swim, a 180-kilometre road cycle, and a marathon (42.2-kilometre) run.

Ironman New Zealand

Ironman New Zealand is a qualifying event for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. It was held annually in Auckland from 1985 to 1998, and in Taupō from 1999. The 1985 event inaugurated a new worldwide series, with 50 places in Hawaii on offer. Only 68 of the 340 starters were New Zealanders, and foreigners dominated in the early years. The number of entrants rose steadily, and in 2002, 945 competitors finished inside the cut-off time of 17 hours. The 2013 Ironman New Zealand attracted 1,430 entrants, the majority of them Kiwis. Olympic triathlon double medallist Bevan Docherty made a spectacular ironman debut at Taupō in 2013, winning in what was then race record time.  

IronMāori

The half-ironman-distance IronMāori event has been held annually in Napier since 2009. IronMāori emphasises healthy lifestyles as much as sporting performance. There were 300 entrants in 2009 and 800 in 2011. In 2017, seven IronMāori events in New Zealand and on the Gold Coast attracted a total of about 2500 competitors.

Ironman World Championships

The first Hawaiian Ironman, a 225-kilometre circuit around the island of Oahu, took place in 1978. The event was moved to the Kailua–Kona district of Hawaii Island (the Big Island) in 1981. Rick Faulding was the first New Zealander to compete, in 1982.

Cameron Brown won Ironman New Zealand 11 times and mounted the podium in Hawaii four times (twice second, twice third). Brown was Sportsman of the Year in 2001, having won the New Zealand Ironman, half-ironman, Olympic and sprint distance titles.

Women’s success

Women competed at Hawaii from 1979. Erin Baker won Ironman New Zealand four times in four attempts, and the world championship twice. By 2012 Baker’s three second placings in Hawaii were the only other medal-winning performances by a New Zealand woman.

Joanne Lawn won Ironman New Zealand seven times, from 2003 to 2008 inclusive and in 2010. Lawn also won many half-ironman events and Germany’s prestigious Challenge Roth ironman.

Terenzo Bozzone won the world half-ironman title in Florida in 2008.


Other endurance events

Since the 1980s many longer multisport events have been created for elite athletes and weekend warriors. The most successful are well organised as well as scenic. The best-known New Zealand endurance event is the Coast to Coast.

Coast to Coast

Elite competitors in the Coast to Coast cross the South Island in one day by cycling, mountain running and kayaking. The race was launched by Robin Judkins in 1983 as a two-day event. The Longest Day category was added in 1987. In 2009 more than 25% of entrants were women. In the 2010s the average age of 36 was typical for a multisport event. The oldest competitor to 2013 was 75.

In 2013 Steve Gurney had won the Coast to Coast nine times; Kathy Lynch and Richard Ussher had won five times. In 2010 former Green MP Mike Ward was the only person who had competed in all 28 events. In the 2010s the Longest Day male and female winner each got $10,000.

XTERRA

Off-road triathlons combine swimming, mountain-biking and trail-running. The best-known are those in the XTERRA World Series, which originated on Maui, Hawaii, in 1996 as the Aquaterra. Some triathletes move on to XTERRA after ‘retiring’. Olympic gold medallist Hamish Carter won the XTERRA world title in Hawaii in 2006 in his final professional race. Rotorua hosts the New Zealand round of the XTERRA World Series each April.

Regional events

In the 2010s multisport organisers offered many options, to maximise participation.

  • The 2013 Motatapu event near Queenstown included off-road marathon, 15-kilometre trail run/walk, ‘half-ironman’ XTERRA triathlon, mountain bike and ‘multisport’ (kayak in place of swim) options.
  • The Dual traverses Motutapu and Rangitoto islands in the Hauraki Gulf. In 2013 the Dual had been held five times and the various events attracted about 1,500 entrants. The triathlon comprised a 1-kilometre swim, 30-kilometre mountain bike and 10-kilometre trail run.
  • The 172-kilometre Motu Challenge starts and finishes at Ōpōtiki, and incorporates mountain biking, road cycling, trail running and kayaking. In 2012, 102 competitors finished the race, which offered $50,000 worth of prizes. It has been run since 1996.
  • In 2012 the Lake to Lighthouse event, a two-day event of mountain biking, kayaking and running from Lake Waikaremoana to Wairoa, was replaced by the Lake Waikaremoana Challenge, a 137-kilometre multisport event which starts and finishes at Tuai.

Adventure races

One of New Zealand’s first ‘extreme’ multisport events was the Alpine Ironman organised by Robin Judkins at Wānaka in 1980. The 31 competitors were flown by helicopter to a mountaintop from which they skied down 1,000 vertical metres, then ran down another 1,000 vertical metres before kayaking downriver. The Alpine Ironman was held annually until 1990, with later events based at Mt Hutt and Queenstown.

Raid Gauloises

The Raid Gauloises is considered the first team adventure race. It was first held in New Zealand in 1989 with 26 five-person teams (each including a woman). Taking two weeks to cover nearly 650 kilometres, the Raid included mountaineering, horse riding, kayaking, canoeing and rafting. Team members had to stay together throughout the race, which imitated military survival training. The Raid Gauloises were held throughout the world until 2003.

In 1991 the first Southern Traverse for teams of four people involved 430 kilometres of mountain biking, kayaking, trekking and some orienteering. In 2004 the event was based in Hokitika, and became part of a seven-event Adventure Racing World Series. The next year the world adventure championships were based in Westport and were won by the Balance Vector team – including three New Zealanders – who pocketed $50,000 for their efforts. After 2008 the Southern Traverse lapsed. It was replaced in 2012 by the GODZone race, which was included in an Adventure Racing World Series leading up to the world championships. In 2012 and 2013 the GODZone race was based in Queenstown. but it moved to Kaikōura in 2014. New Zealand’s Team Seagate won the 2012 and 2013 races, as well as the 2012 world adventure championships in France. 

The Eco-Challenge, a similar event staged for cable television from 1995 to 2002, was held in New Zealand in 2001. New Zealand's landscape made the country an ideal venue for such events.

The most ambitious events traversed the length of the country. Robin Judkins’s 1990 Xerox Challenge marked the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi. 63 of the 67 competitors got from Cape Rēinga to Bluff (2,500 kilometres) in 22 days. The 2001 Mizone Endurazone challenge covered 2,700 kilometres in 30 days in the opposite direction. All but one of the 64 starters finished. Steve Gurney won both these events, which have not been repeated because of cost.


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How to cite this page: David Green, 'Triathlon and multisport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/triathlon-and-multisport/print (accessed 19 July 2019)

Story by David Green, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Mar 2015