Born to XTERRA.
When you grow up around the lakes and redwood forests of Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island, outdoor adventure is part of the core curriculum.
“I grew up having fun in the water of Lake Rotoiti for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been mountain biking in the forest since I was 4-years-old,” said Lewis ‘Skinnies’ Ryan. “Being active and outdoors is what we always did as a family and I’ve always loved playing in nature, but only recently have I realized just how lucky I had been to spend every day outside.”
Ryan, 21, started running competitively and racing mountain bikes when he was just 11, and was naturally drawn to XTERRA from a very young age.
“When I was growing up my Dad, Brendan, always competed in XTERRA Rotorua so I spent a fair bit of time as a youngster hanging out watching the race, then from about age 13 I started doing the XTERRA mountain bike races at Rotorua and I guess the rest is history.”
As an 18-year-old Ryan won the overall amateur title at the XTERRA Pan Am Championship in Utah, and over the years he also won XTERRA Lake Tahoe, the 15-19 XTERRA Asia-Pacific Tour title, and a host of other events. He went pro by the time he turned 20 in 2018, and won his first elite title at the inaugural XTERRA Taiwan off-road triathlon in Kenting not long after.
The vibrant, beloved Kiwi was at the top of his game, and then uncertainty started to settle in. First came an IT band injury and hip issue that sidelined him for much of 2019 and into 2020, followed by a fabulous opportunity to jump start his own content creation company (WE. ARE. DARE) with his girlfriend Suné in Auckland, and then a car crash that left them both shaken but not broken. Combined, those three things limited his time in the forest, doing the things he loved.
“I’m definitely not the same person when I’m not training or exercising,” said Ryan. “I actually probably didn’t realize how much it impacted my mental health until recently. Suné and I were shaken up pretty good in that car crash, and I was exhausted from the stress of it all. Really didn’t start to bounce back until I went for a big open water swim in the blue lake. I think for me, training outdoors is crucial for my mental well-being. If I’ve got a lot to process or am starting to stress, there’s just nothing like being able to escape into the peace and quiet of nature.”
With the help of some steady time in the lake and on the trails Ryan was well on his way to regaining his form, and excited to jump back into his hometown race, the 17th annual XTERRA New Zealand Championship scheduled for April 4, 2020. Then came COVID-19, and the lockdown.
“Yup, Suné and I are in lockdown in a little apartment right in the heart of the city, which can feel pretty tight at times when you’re used to spending most of your time in the great outdoors. But, on the flip side, it’s pretty fun to be locked up just trying to have as much fun as possible in our little spot.”
Ryan’s coping strategy is simply to put things in perspective, and choose positivity.
“While it’s gutting that we don’t have any races on the calendar and our travel plans are mucked up for a while, there are people out there in way worse situations. It’s important to focus on what we do have, rather than what we’re missing out on.”
Ryan added that, “in times like this I think the XTERRA community has a real advantage. We all have a shared passion for health, fitness, and the environment. Plus, if there’s anything that racing has taught us it’s that things don’t always go as planned, so when things go pear shaped you just have to keep pushing on and eventually it’ll come right.”
Interesting side notes from our chat with “Skinnies”
- He showed so much promise when he started racing mountain bikes as an 11-year-old, the founders of Skinnies Sunscreen signed on to be his first sponsor, a relationship that flourishes on today.
“Martha and Olly had just launched their company and very generously started supporting me with my racing, and to show my appreciation I used ‘Skinnies’ as my middle name on race sign-up sheets and my social media accounts,” explained Ryan. “It’s quite funny really, because very few people know the full story, and to this day most people simply know me as Skinnies. Still grateful to have such amazing support.”
- There must be something in the water! Rotorua is home to arguably the most talented collection of XTERRA racers on earth. Notables that live in Rotorua or nearby (or spend a lot of time there) include Lewis Ryan, Olympic gold medalist Hamish Carter, reigning XTERRA Pan Am Tour Champions Sam Osborne and Samantha Kingsford, 2018 Pan Am Champ Kieran McPherson, ITU standout Hayden Wilde, Cabin Leishman, Nic Leary, and former XTERRA Age Group World Champions Olly Shaw, Scott Thorne, Sarah Backler, Monique Avery, Sonia Foote, and Lydia Hale. “There’s just nowhere else in the world with the outdoor adventure training ground like Rotorua,” said Ryan.
- If you had one day with Skinnies in New Zealand, this is the itinerary: “I’d pick you up from Auckland airport, we’d walk the Mercer Bay loop track, go to KareKare beach, grab a cocktail in the Auckland Viaduct, then a sweet dessert treat from Milse in Britomart. We’d get up early and drive to Mount Maunganui then sunrise walk to the top for the view, drive to Rotorua and get an Affogato from the coffee spot beside the bike shop. Go riding for a couple hours, then go to the hot pools on Lake Rotoiti for the evening! I reckon we’d probably even have time to jam in a couple luge runs and some whitewater rafting…” And Plan B = thermal hot pools on Lake Rotoiti (only access by boat) to Overnight bike / hike mission in the Whirinaki Forest to Waitomo Glowworm caves to rafting on the Kaituna River.
- Typical training week: I aim for around 20-24 hours a week with a mix of low intensity and high intensity sessions. Normally that week will be made up of 6-8 hours swimming, 2 hours in the gym, 8ish hours riding, 3-4 hours running. When I’m in Auckland I’ll do a good chunk of those sessions with some friends up there and they’re mostly all completed in short course pools and on the road. But, when I’m home in Rotorua I’ll do pretty much everything off-road. I love having the variation in my training and the ability to do the intense workouts in Auckland with other people, then to be able to get out and escape in the forest on my own!
- Shout-out to NZO/RideCentral: Ryan basically grew up and worked at his local bike shop, NZO Ride Central, and is almost as famous there as the bike shop dog, Monty. “The bike shop is a family to me and so even now I basically drop everything to work in there when I get asked. And even when I’m not actually working I still hang out in there lots. No word of a lie, I basically have a full wardrobe of clothes and kits there because I use it as my in-town base. I get ready for all my races in there, plus it’s also where I got ready for my first date and the school ball so it’s basically home to me!
- What’s for Lunch? “Ice cream and chocolate no doubt,” said Ryan. “I have a mega sweet tooth, so I basically love anything that’s at least 60% sugar. But, on a bit more serious note I am an LCHF athlete and my girlfriend makes this epic chia seed pudding that I eat probably 3-4 times per week. Hard to go wrong with a bag of chia seeds, can of coconut cream and some crunchy peanut butter on top! But, I also have a bit of a ritual going where I have an Affogato every Friday… oops!”
XTERRA Role Model: “There’s a lot of people I look up to various reasons. I was first inspired to want to compete in XTERRA because I grew up watching my Dad give it a crack and I’ll always really cherish those first four open water swims he took me on before I competed in my first XTERRA. Then I think I got the urge to try and win the race one day after watching Conrad Stoltz and Ben Allen have an epic battle. I definitely look up to Ben a lot, he’s probably been one of the most supportive pros that’s helped me to try and crack into that elite group. He’s just always been really forthcoming with advice and knowledge and he’s a super fun dude to be around so I’m really grateful for that. And Clyve Cousins is probably the happiest, bubbliest dude I’ve ever met. He’s got a huge heart and an even bigger passion for the sport! He’s a guy I look up to as someone I’d love to be like one day.”