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Special plan to celebrate race anniversary upended

Thursday, 10 February 2022

The man who dominated the Coast to Coast for so long has been robbed of a chance to compete in the 40th anniversary event. Wayne Parsons tracks down Steve Gurney for a chat.

Covid-19 Red settings have put paid to nine-time champion Steve Gurney celebrating the Coast to Coast’s 40th anniversary on Saturday.

Nine-time Coast to Coast champion Steve Gurney had intended to dust off the cobwebs and walk down memory lane in the 40th edition of the event. But the two-day event has been cancelled because of Covid-19 restrictions and only a one-day event will go ahead.

The disappointment of not being able to compete was real for Gurney, who had trained hard over the past 12 months to be part of the celebrations.

He had run regularly over the Remarkables and restored the fully enclosed cycling pod he used to controversially win his first Coast to Coast title in 1990.

"This baby is banned. It’s illegal," he said.

" I used it once and got a 23% advantage. When you’re travelling at speed you use around 96% of your energy overcoming wind drag. So this takes all that away."

He said the plan to use the pod had been to celebrate the rich history of the event and he would have been happy to be disqualified for its use.

Gurney, who these days lives in Queenstown, will still be an integral part of the event, fulfilling what has become his customary role as the event’s ambassador.

At 58, he was quite relaxed about the fact his competitive years were now behind him.

He remains an ambassador in the event and helps train and motivate troubled children for the event.

A chance meeting with Robin Judkins in Christchurch prior to the inaugural 1983 race ignited the spark that was to see Gurney’s name become synonymous with the Coast to Coast.

"I had to finish my engineering degree first before I could fully commit to training," he said of not being able to compete straight away.

Gurney had been pumped for his first attempt at the 1986 Coast to Coast, going into it thinking he could win, only to finish 22nd in a field of 70.

So enthralled by the adventure race aspect, he trained harder and improved to finish third in 1987.

Despite the podium step, it was still failure in his eyes as he harboured a deep desire to win. Second in 1988, still represented failure to him.

So he quit work and trained more than 55 hours a week for the 1989 event, only to finish second again.

"I had probably overtrained, for that," he said.

"It takes a bit to learn how to win this race."

He finally achieved success on his fifth attempt in 1990, winning in a smart 11hr 6min 49sec. He came first again in 1991, clocking 10hr 56min 14sec and winning a car in the process by breaking the 11-hour barrier.

"It is about training smarter, not harder."

Gurney said that to "finish first ... first you must finish".

After his win in 1991, he spent the next five years battling his way back into full health following leptospirosis, a blood poisoning he received from bats while crossing through the Mulu Caves in Malaysia.

"I came down pretty sick. [I was] on three life-support machines in the hospital over there, in a coma.

"Kidney failure. Lung failure. I didn’t die though. It takes a bit more than that to kill a Gurney."

IT was not until 1997 that Gurney returned to the top of the podium at the Coast to Coast. He then went on to win the next six races, for seven consecutive titles.

Gurney said that after winning the event for a ninth time, in 2003, his focus turned to winning a 10th — "it’s a nice round number".

But ambition in that 2004 race proved his undoing when he ignored the early signs of hypothermia and a niggling cartridge tear in his ankle, and he was denied victory when George Christison, of Whakatane, won.

The realisation that his journey at the high-performance level was coming to an end, and a 10th title would be a bridge too far, sent him spiraling into depression.

"A lot of athletes get to the end of their career and get a little bit lost. And I certainly did," he said.

"Winning Coast to Coast nine times and not 10 got me to the point I was so frustrated that I became depressed.

"I was fortunate and got a lot of help. And I realised not to be afraid to ask for this help when I needed it."

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