Cross country ski race director ready to pass over reins

International Snow Farm World Loppet race director John Burridge, 84, wants to call it quits....
International Snow Farm World Loppet race director John Burridge, 84, wants to call it quits. PHOTO: MARJORIE COOK
At the sprightly age of 84, Auckland retiree John Burridge is probably one of New Zealand’s most senior international race directors.

This winter he will take his annual uplifting break from his retirement village to travel to Wānaka and direct the Snow Farm’s annual Merino Muster World Loppet, a cross country ski race popular with local and international athletes.

But he hopes this year will be his last and a new volunteer will offer to take over the reins.

"I thought if I put my age out there, it might make people realise we [the Waiorau Nordic Ski Club] need a bit more help," he joked during a recent interview with the Wānaka Sun.

Burridge has not lost his sense of humour — his retirement village has a theme song Another One Bites The Dust — but he worries it is "less than sound" to keep him on as race director, "especially when considering long-term strategies for the future of the race". 

In 2019, Snow Farm manager Sam Lee relieved Burridge of his duties, but it was too much on top of grooming trails and managing health and safety, staff and all the other skifield managerial stuff that Lee does, so Burridge stepped back up to the line.

"Last year I was helping with the set up of the stadium but had to retire at lunch time as I was not coping with the altitude and needed my usual afternoon nap.

"As a consequence, we missed the deadline for the Snow Farm grooming team to have the course marked before they started their late afternoon and overnight grooming," Burridge said. 

"It caused some angst for them but in spite of our missing deadlines and making their life more difficult, we delivered a brilliant track, even with the limited snow cover."

He regrets his very last-minute race planning last year, and would love a youthful understudy this year, if only as a stand-by, "in case I need oxygen bottle support".

The understudy would also require patience, Burridge said, as he tends to repeats his story about skiing the Transjurassienne in France and how the course team there used snowmobile headlights to ensure a party of women skiers reached the finish line.

"The race director’s skills are essentially managerial rather than cross-country skiing, as there is a FIS qualified technical delegate, a sort of referee, who guides and controls safety and race fairness," Burridge said.

Burridge cannot remember the first year he directed the Merino Muster.

"[Snow Farm co-founder] Mary Lee gave the job to me. It doesn’t carry any status. Most of the time you are handing out sandwiches." 

Merino Muster race director John Burridge, when he was 63, with Invercargill skier Bruce Thomson...
Merino Muster race director John Burridge, when he was 63, with Invercargill skier Bruce Thomson in 2003.
Burridge first tried cross country in Canterbury in the 1980s and failed miserably.

"In my early days, I lived in Lower Hutt, then Taupo, then Auckland. I had a friend at Massey University and one lunch time I was chewing the fat with him and told him I had seen a story about cross country skiing out the back of Round Hill in Canterbury.

"There was this guy who ran cross country courses, so we went and did it and it was an unmitigated disaster. The snow had been blown off the top of the hills. We both thought, it can’t be this bad."

"I then heard of something going in Cardrona while I was talking to farmers at an animal health conference in Winton. Some of us decided to slope off to the Snow Farm for the weekend. I couldn’t believe my luck," Mr Burridge recalled.

The conference escapees’ wintry weekend camp at the Wānaka Top 10 Holiday Park was the start of an annual winter tradition.

"Our skiing was awful but we thoroughly enjoyed it. Then I learned to skate ski. It took me three years to learn that. One of the instructors gave up on me completely."

His participation eventually earned him some medals, including two veteran championship medals in recent times.

"I think there was one lady and another guy in the race," he said.

Burridge is ahead with race planning this year. He spent a week in Wānaka in April, getting to grips with his upcoming tasks and checking Snow Farm infrastructure.

"I will be back in plenty of time for the August event. I have got my family coming too. Some of them are very keen," he said.

This year, Burridge wants to make a few tweaks to keep Merino Muster athletes and spectators on their toes.

He hopes to introduce a powhiri, offering international athletes a special cultural context and experience.

He is considering a course change to take skiers past the new Musterers Hut, just because he really likes it and wants more people to see it.

Planning for a hospitality base near the Cardrona township is also under way.

Burridge would continue to attend the Merino Muster, even after another race director takes over.

"I will carry on as long as I can. For me it is a very special race," he said.