“I’m very careful about the people I race with. Most of them have huge tresholds of suffering and discomfort, as well as incredible levels of perseverance and commitment.”
He is like the Messi or Ronaldo of our sport,” says Brian Keogh of Irish adventure racing team DAR Dingle. “I can’t believe we’re competing in the same race as him.” It’s the day before the start of the GODZone Adventure Race in Wanaka, and Keogh is waxing lyrical about Nathan Fa’avae. The 43-year-old from Nelson is a legend in the adventure racing community, but unlike in football, where the superior skills and artistry of a Lionel Messi or a Christiano Ronaldo can be appreciated by anyone watching a two-minute clip of highlights, what makes Fa’avae great is impossible to capture on a YouTube compilation.
For one thing, adventure racing is not a spectator-friendly sport. A typical adventure race sees teams of four (three men plus one woman) traverse hundreds of kilometres. The race is divided into different stages and the disciplines usually include mountain biking, hiking, kayaking and rope courses. Navigation skills are key, as is the ability to survive and thrive on as little sleep as possible.
Fa’avae is arguably the most successful adventure racer of his generation because of what’s in his head, his heart and his legs. He has an ability to tolerate pain and push on when others give up. Fa’avae insists there’s no magic formula, no training regime that guarantees success in this sport. He just seems to be able to get the most out of himself and his teammates, and do it consistently.
“Nathan always takes everybody’s opinion on board. We call him Camp Mum, because he organises everything for us. We just have to turn up and race.“
Fa’avae has great stories, and he tells them with a matter-of-factness that gives an insight into his character. He’s cool, composed and understated, even when he’s talking about the time he knocked on the door of a stranger’s house in a Kyrgyzstan village to beg for food and shelter during a race in 2003.
While the team were inside eating dinner, one of their bikes was stolen. Fortunately, they caught the thief by following tracks in the dust, retrieved the bike and went on to finish the race. Or there’s the time Fa’avae forgot to pack his hiking shoes for a stage of the Adventure Racing World Championship in Spain in 2010, so he climbed the trail in his mountain-biking shoes and walked back down in his socks. “To other people it might seem like a big deal, but I grew up in bare feet, so it wasn’t a problem for me,” says Fa’avae. “I didn’t slow down the team too much.”
THE RED BULLETIN: How and why did you get into adventure racing?
NATHAN FA’AVAE: I represented New Zealand in mountain biking in my
teens and early 20s before moving into multisport. My first adventure race was the Southern Traverse in 1999 [Fa’avae’s team won the race] and the sport just clicked with me. I worked in outdoor education, so I could use the skills I’d learned in navigation, white water rafting and rock climbing. I also enjoyed the team aspect; I did individual sports for 10 years, but there’s something special about being on the start line with three teammates and one clear objective: to get to the finish line as quickly as possible
What’s your role as team captain?
I’m the strategist, and I’m also responsible for the wellbeing of the team. I ensure that my teammates have opportunities to communicate with each other. Almost every issue during a race comes down to a communication breakdown. Before the race, I’ll check-in with everyone and make sure they’re clear about our strategy and what I expect from them. If a team becomes dysfunctional, it’s usually because someone feels undervalued.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m not an authoritarian leader; I like to delegate responsibility. Any decisions during a race are usually group decisions. Occasionally I’ll put my foot down and make a decision of my own, but I don’t need to do that too often.
The 37-year-old computer programmer joined Team Seagate last year and has won the world championship with three different teams. “There are times when you question why youdo this at all,” he says. “Finishing is such a relief.”
Is adventure racing a ruthless sport?
There’s an unwritten rule for the teams I race in: you can only quit if the race doctor stands in front of you and tells you the show is over. There are times in adventure racing when what you’re doing is the last thing you want to be doing, when you’re in the last place you want to be, and when you swear to yourself it’s the last race you’ll ever do. If pulling out is an option, you’ll entertain the idea; if it’s not, you focus on how you’re going to cope. I raced in Africa a few years ago and one of the team was suffering from a dust irritation in his lungs. He came up to me quite casually and said, “This dust is really getting to me. At the end of this stage, I’m going to stop. I’m done.” I was speechless.
You’ve been forced to quit a race due to a heart condition, right?
I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation in 1999. In 2001, I had to be taken off the mountain by helicopter during the run leg of the Coast To Coast. My heart went into arrhythmia on the start line; it’s like you’re instantly fatigued. I kept racing, but I had friends working on mountain safety during the run and they could tell I wasn’t myself. They called for the chopper. It was hard times racing back then. I was racing well under my capacity.
But still winning?
That’s the crazy thing. I had heart surgery in 2005 and 2014, but won the World Championship both years.
The 38-year-old from Christchurch is widely regarded as the best navigator in the sport. Opposition teams often wait to see which route he takes, because they know it’ll usually
be the quickest.
You retired from professional racing after winning the World Championship in 2005. Why?
I’d had surgery six months earlier and my heart was finally working well. I didn’t want to compromise it any more than I needed to. My wife Jodie and I had two young kids and she was pregnant with our third, so I decided to get a real job and live a more normal life.
So why did you decide to return to the big stage in 2009?
I did a race in New Caledonia and realised I still really enjoyed racing. My kids were older, I had established my events company, and the 2011 World Championship was being held in Tasmania, so I targeted that event.
But things didn’t quite go according to plan in Tasmania?
On one of the stages, I forgot our SPOT Tracker [a GPS device that tells event HQ the location of each team]. We led for the whole race, but we were penalised four hours and had to sit in transition 35km from the finish line and watch as the French team took the lead. They weren’t that gracious in their victory, given the circumstances. To beat them in France the following year was very satisfying.
You’ve just turned 43. Do you ever feel your age?
As I get older, I feel a little less confident on exposed sections. I’ve got three kids now, so I’m less likely to take unnecessary risks. Ten years ago, on the same terrain, I’d skip along quite happily. I joke about my age, but apart from that it isn’t really an issue. The longer you’ve been in the sport, the less training you need to do. I’ve done all the hard work and put in the miles, and it actually becomes easier as you get older.
How many more years do you have left at the elite level?
I’m pretty sure this will be my last season of international racing. When I say I’m retiring, that doesn’t mean I won’t ever race again; it just won’t play as big a part in my life. I’ve been to ten World Championships, won a lot of races, been part of some amazing teams, organised events and helped raise the awareness of the sport, so I’m happy with what I’ve achieved. There is still a world of things out there that I want to do. I’ll always be an adventurer at heart.
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