The 15th annual XTERRA Rotorua Festival is set for Saturday in the enchanting Whakarewarewa Forest surrounding Lake Tikitapu.
If you’ve ever seen Lord of the Rings you can imagine this place. The trails seem heavenly made with magic dirt and the course twists and turns through towering redwoods and monstrous ferns.
The lure of this mythical place annually attracts some 2,000 XTERRA Warriors for a festive day of events that include family-friendly 5.5, 11, and 21km trail runs, mountain bike races, and short-and-championship distance off-road triathlons.
It’s no surprise that some of XTERRA’s brightest stars hail from right here in Rotorua, guys like Sam Osborne, Olly Shaw, Lewis Ryan, and the list goes on.
The man-to-beat on Saturday, however, hails from the South Island in Wanaka. Braden Currie, the reigning and two-time XTERRA New Zealand Champ, has done more in the “off-season” than most people do in a lifetime. He went long and got a win at Ironman New Zealand. He went coast-to-coast for a runner-up, and got defiant with Josiah Middaugh for another payday. Now he turns his attention to XTERRA, and the first-step towards a big-picture dream of winning Worlds.
“I have had a pretty cruisy training stint since Ironman NZ in early March so the body is doing great, actually,” said Currie, who was 4th at XTERRA Worlds last year. “I have been enjoying getting back into riding over the last two weeks. I still love racing XTERRA but will put more of a focus into Ironman and 70.3 racing this year, but I will be using the mountain bike for cross training and still be doing lots of hill running. I am looking forward to another round at Worlds. It’s one of my favorite races of the year and I’m confident that one day, everything will line up for me.”
First up is getting past a motivated Sam Osborne who just won the XTERRA Asia-Pacific Tour opener in Saipan a few weeks ago.
“Saipan was great, a good confidence builder and I was very happy to get the win straight out of the blocks but that was two weeks ago and Rotorua is a different beast and I can guarantee it will be an incredibly fast race,” exclaimed Osborne.
Two years ago, Osborne nearly caught Currie at the finish line by posting the fastest run of the day, but ultimately finished 13-seconds shy of a title.
“Osborne always gives a good chase,” said Currie. “He is a tough athlete and I really enjoy racing him. I look forward to a good battle with him in the swim, bike and the run.”
Osborne finished 2nd behind Currie last year as well, and went on to become the vice-champion of the XTERRA European Tour.
“When you race against Currie you better show up with the best sword you've got in the armory and be ready to battle all swim, bike & run,” said Osborne, “but don't just think about Braden, there's more lining up that are more than capable of pushing things.”
Ultimately, however, it’s racing in front of the family that’s got Osborne so excited for this one…
“The home race is always something special, it's not so much my home course that makes it but the people,” said Osborne. “Racing past all the downhillers waiting for the shuttle bus that you see most weekends out riding, they get right in behind us and know how to give a good heckle. And then all the people out on the course marshalling and at the lake, the home atmosphere is what is awesome.”
Olly Shaw knows all about that home cooking. At 25-years-old, Shaw is already a 10-year veteran of the sport, having raced at XTERRA Rotorua since he was 15. He still wants nothing more than to win it.
“This race is always my main focus for the early part of the season,” said the 2016 XTERRA Motatapu Champion.
Another young, promising Kiwi following in the footsteps of guys like Shaw is Hayden Wilde from Whakatane. Wilde won the 15-19 division XTERRA World Championship for the second-straight year in October and placed 29th overall ahead of more than two dozen international XTERRA elites.
Fynn Thompson, the U23 National Champ who dreams like Wilde of representing New Zealand at the 2020 Olympics, is hoping for a big day in Rotorua, as are fellow countrymen and XTERRA regulars Alex Roberts and Cameron Paul, Kyle Smith, Dirk Peters, and John Mering.
Adding international flavor to the men’s field is Cedric Wane, a rookie elite out of Tahiti, Brodie Gardner, the 2016 XTERRA Saipan Champ who just finished 3rd at XTERRA Thailand, and David Ballesteros from Spain, who was 4th in Thailand.
In the women’s race Jacqui Allen (formerly Slack) has a new last name but the same big game. She won the XTERRA Asia-Pacific Tour finale last year in Malaysia and won here in Rotorua back in 2012.
“I'm feeling relatively fit all considering,” said Slack, who married fellow XTERRA Warrior Ben Allen in Australia just a few weeks ago.
“One of my athletes Penny Slater will be racing her first pro XTERRA race in New Zealand alongside me. She's going very well and there could be potential for an athlete/coach battle … hopefully experience will pay off,” smiled Allen.
She’ll have a proper test and renew a long-standing Asia-Pacific friendship/rivalry with XTERRA Thailand Champion Renata Bucher. The “Swiss Miss” just won her 34th XTERRA major last weekend in Phuket, and captured the XTERRA New Zealand crown in 2013.
Other elite women in the mix include a pair of Kiwis, Hannah Wells and Karen Toulmin.
For more information visit www.xterra.co.nz and follow their Facebook page at facebook.com/pages/Paymark-XTERRA-Rotorua-Festival.
Highlight Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfWfZlUF0Do
XTERRA NEW ZEALAND ALL-TIME WINNERS
Year Men Women
2003 Sam Mallard Evelyn Willamson
2004 Hamish Carter Sonia Foote
2005 Hamish Carter Sonia Foote
2006 Hamish Carter Gina Ferguson
2007 Tim Wilding Gina Ferguson
2008 Terenzo Bozzone Sonia Foote
2009 Richard Ussher Nicola Leary
2010 Scott Thorne Nicola Leary
2011 Richard Ussher Karen Hanlen
2012 Ben Allen Jacqui Slack
2013 Ben Allen Renata Bucher
2014 Conrad Stoltz Barbara Riveros
2015 Braden Currie Suzie Snyder
2016 Braden Currie Lizzie Orchard