You’re looking at a world map, wondering where to head next to satisfy your insatiable desire to race, travel, and absorb new experiences. In the bottom right corner—for much of the world, far, far away—are two relatively small islands, miles from anywhere: New Zealand. Aotearoa. The Land of the Long White Cloud.
The setting for Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings films conjures up images of hobbits, wizards, and epic journeys across mountain passes and up towering volcanoes. Mythical stories aside, New Zealand is home to one of the oldest and best-loved IRONMAN events in the world, not to mention some of the most stunning races imaginable. It’s also the country I now call home; the pull of this incredible place was so strong that I packed up my life in Vancouver, B.C., and headed south to immerse myself in the outdoor Kiwi lifestyle.
But doesn’t it take forever to get there? And how will I ever get used to driving on the left? This is our handy guide to visiting and competing in New Zealand; we promise, once you make the trip, you’ll feel right at home!
"New Zealand possesses a charm that feels lost in other parts of the world," says Dan Horton, founder of triathlon travel company TriAdventuresNZ and finisher of multiple IRONMAN events. "The pace of life here feels natural and relaxed but not inefficient. People are kind and welcoming, and as a traveler, you feel safe."
Ok, we admit it. New Zealand is pretty far from most places. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s hard to get to. There are numerous direct daily flights from various North American cities to Auckland, and from there you can connect to other destinations in New Zealand.
Things are a little trickier from Europe, unfortunately, where it's impossible to find direct flights to New Zealand. Common stopover destinations include Singapore and Dubai, however, two of the most luxurious airports on the planet. These two cities are very hip destinations in and of themselves, so why not take a couple of nights to break up the trip? Sleeping in a luxury hotel and touring the world's most up-and-coming architectural marvels doesn't sound so rough to us.
Flying with a bike is also easier than ever. There are loads of bike bags on the market uniquely suited to travel if a good old-fashioned cardboard bike box isn't your style. Pack it securely, add in a few of your training accessories, and away you go.
The time difference from the U.S. is just a few hours (though a totally different day) but from Europe you'll end up pretty backwards. Laura Siddall, the current IRONMAN New Zealand champion, splits her training and racing between New Zealand and Australia, the U.S., and Europe, and has a few tips for hitting the ground running. "I always try to adjust to the destination time zone as soon as I get on the flight, and try to sleep or stay awake as if I was already in the country I'm heading to. I also think it's best not to nap that first day you arrive. Just keep moving till you get to the evening then crash out."
New Zealand might be small, but getting around can be tough. A rental vehicle is almost essential if you want to lug all your gear around with you. Most rentals are automatics which makes life easier, but remember to drive on the left and leave plenty of time for your journey—the roads are remote and mountainous, and driving here is very different to most other places.
Travelling without a car is very difficult, Horton says. "Unfortunately, New Zealand doesn't enjoy the rail and transport networks of Europe or the U.S. Intercity buses travel between the major centers but require bikes to be broken down, boxed or bagged and stowed."
One easy alternative is a specialist company that moves everything for you. Great options include Tri Travel, who can help get all your gear to the start line of your race, or TriAdventuresNZ, who will put together a full itinerary for training and exploring in the weeks leading up to your big event.
It’s no exaggeration to say that New Zealand is a paradise for training for endurance sport. Just look at the number of top competitors this small nation produces.
In addition, the range of training options are awesome. "Diversity is one of New Zealand's strengths. Swapping salt water for fresh or tarmac for trail is easy, and will help keep the long training days interesting," Horton says.
There are quiet roads as soon as you leave the major population centers, and access to the wilderness for cross-training and off-road adventures is remarkable. The options for swimming seem endless, from clean and safe coastal waters, to majestic lakes, including Lake Taupo, home of the swim for IRONMAN New Zealand.
Siddall says that getting outside is part of life for Kiwis: "It's great for training as it's such an outdoor nation. Most people are out and about being active, and there is an appreciation for being out on the roads cycling and running."
The diversity, quality, and heritage of the events on offer in New Zealand is unparalleled, but the jewel in the crown of Kiwi races has to be IRONMAN New Zealand. The race will be celebrating its 35th year in 2019 and it's the experience as much as the scenic course that make this event remarkable.
"It's incredible because the community truly welcome the race to the town every year. Ten percent of the town volunteers—that's 2200 people, which is more than one for each athlete. You are treated like royalty for the days leading up to the race and on race day," Siddall says.
More than half of the participants come from overseas each year, making IRONMAN New Zealand one of the most international races on the circuit. The swim is considered to be one of the best around, and the bike is beautiful, but challenging.
The three-loop run is where the town come alive according to Siddall. "The course takes you through the town and lake front, with so much support all the way around. There's never a lonely moment."
Aside from the traditional triathlon events, the IRONMAN portfolio has a lot more to offer the endurance athlete bound for New Zealand. The Air New Zealand Queenstown International Marathon is often called the most scenic marathon in the world. Given the mountain backdrop, it would be very hard to disagree. Step off the beaten path and jump into one of the Macpac Motatapu events, which cater to all tastes, including an ultra-run, a mountain bike race, and an off-road triathlon. The high-country stations traversed are only open for the races, making this your sole opportunity each year to pass through this rugged valley.
Looking for something even more extreme? The Pioneer is a six-day mountain bike stage race that takes you through some of the most stunning and brutal terrain New Zealand has to offer. The scale of the challenge is epic, but one look at the highlights video from last year should be enough to tempt any endurance lover. (Just make sure you put in the training!)
New Zealand might be about as remote as it gets, but that only makes it more tantalizing to the intrepid competitor. Getting here is surprisingly straightforward, and the opportunities to train and race are unique and memorable.
"It's our secret for everyone who knows how awesome New Zealand is—the amazing scenery, fantastic people, food and coffee, and spectacular races and communities. But actually no, don't come, you wouldn't like it at all!"
by Luke Yates