Race to live, live to race

Richard Ussher is one of the world’s handful of full-time multisport athletes. Life for him involves crisscrossing the globe to race in remote and beautiful locations that most of us can only dream about.

In case you fancy his job though, consider why there are so few professionals in the sport. It’s an all-consuming way of life that requires day-in, day-out dedication to training, an endlessly understanding partner and – above all – enough ability to get you consistently on the podium so that your winnings help balance the bills. In 2007, Ussher’s team won the sport’s richest prize: the Abu Dhabi Adventure Race. “If we hadn’t got in the top four in that race, we probably would have lost the house”, he says today.

Happily, Ussher’s lifelong love of a challenge means he has the drive to keep putting in the training, while his partner is his Finnish wife Elina, who he met at an event in South Africa. They now regularly race together.

As for the third factor, Ussher’s record speaks for itself. He has just won that Abu Dhabi race for the third successive year, and has a litany of other titles to his name, including three Coast to Coasts, two AR World Championships, a Primal Quest, a Mild Seven Outdoor Quest and numerous smaller races. In 2008 alone he bagged 14 titles of one form or another.

Born and raised in Wellington, New Zealand, Ussher cites his adaptability as one of his major strengths with his school-age sporting abilities expressed in triathlon as well as team sports. His first brush with the sporting big time though came in another very different discipline: skiing.

He’d seen Kiwi skiers fare badly in international competition: “I was like, ‘man, these guys are pathetic’.” With only 30 days experience, he tried out for the national team. Discovering it to be harder than he had imagined, he put in three years hard graft and made the mogul team for the 1998 Nagano Olympics. There he came 25th out of around 40 skiers.

“For a long time it was a very disappointing experience – at the start I had envisaged a different story. But years later I started to look back more objectively, to be proud of the process I had gone through.”

Switching to adventure racing, he then did his first Coast to Coast, New Zealand’s most famous event and regarded by some as the original multisport race. “That was my real Olympic experience,” he says now. “To be at a major race without the goal to be competitive, and to be cycling through crowds and hearing cheering and clapping and the public calling your name.”

He went on to take part in many of the world’s biggest races, especially enjoying the “old-school”, expedition-style events such as the Raid Gauloises and Eco Challenge which were in his words “more life experiences than races – four or five hours sleep a night, have a beer in a village”.

In his opinion, races should have a focus, a logical progression, and he’s critical of events that seem contrived and needlessly punishing: “There’s got to be some sort of enjoyment factor – you can’t just market it as ‘this is going to be the worst experience of your life’,” he says, with the Primal Quest in mind.

He also criticises the course at the AR World Championships in Scotland in 2007. Though he has fond memories of kayaking under the Northern Lights at the AR Worlds in Scandinavia the previous year, the race in the Highlands left him with doubts over how important the AR World Series is today: “As far as I am concerned, they don’t have any credibility anymore.”

Another issue with him is the shallow pool of professionals in multisport. After Ussher’s last Coast to Coast win in 2008, there was talk of him focusing on Ironmans for this reason. He insists though that venturing into this new arena was more about proving a point: triathletes have a perception of multisports people as not being of a super-high level, he says.

It was just three weeks after the Coast to Coast when he took to the course at Rothenburg in Germany but it was “one of those days everything clicked”, he says of his seventh place in the pro division, “. . . an unexpected result in an unbelieveable atmosphere.” Now 33, he talks of racing for another three or four years, saying that “the lifestyle is the more important thing now, I am becoming more realistic and cutting out some of the smaller races”. That means looking for races like Abu Dhabi and the Wulong Adventure Race in China that offer a potentially large income.

He’s also helping others follow in his footsteps. “I really enjoy helping people get more out of themselves . . . helping them to learn to balance life, racing and training. You’ve got to have a balanced lifestyle to get the best out of yourself. I’ve been guilty of being unbalanced at times.”

Ussher’s referring especially to a six-month period with Team Nike in 2006 when he did something like 500 hours of racing: Coast to Coast, Primal Quest, AR Worlds, Raid and others. Things came to a head during the Coast to Coast when he found himself suffering from chronic fatigue: “We were on the river first but ended up paddling like we were on a fishing trip,” he says.

“It’s so humbling when you are the drag,” he explains, an experience felt again at the latest Wulong race in September when he reacted badly to the local food and became a passenger relying on the others to help him round. “The second day was decided pretty much by who was healthy,” he says, though his team, Toread Adventure Sport, still finished third.

As for how his wife treats him in such instances: “When we race we treat each other as team mates,” he says. He explains that is the only pragmatic approach. “The real risk is of alienating your other team-mates . . . when we cross the line we become husband and wife again.”