Traverse now a family affair

John Walker greets his son, James, and grandson, Harry (then 9), at the Coast to Coast in 2021....
John Walker greets his son, James, and grandson, Harry (then 9), at the Coast to Coast in 2021. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
He shares a name with one of New Zealand’s greatest athletes, but he will have to go just a bit further than a mile.

John Walker might also have some explaining to do as he spends his golden wedding anniversary lining up on the shores of Kumara Beach to contest the Coast to Coast next month.

Walker (76), a retired solicitor formerly of Dunedin and now living in Wanaka, will contest the two-person team section with his son, James.

Walker’s wife, Heather, will spend their wedding anniversary managing the support crew, and daughter Carolyn, the nutritionist for Snow Sports New Zealand’s high performance programme, will also be contesting the two-day team section.

Covid restrictions prevented the family from being part of the 40th anniversary of the Coast to Coast last year.

The father-and-son combination last competed in the washed-out 2020 event in which James faced the gruelling task of having to run up and over the Otira Viaduct, which for safety reasons replaced the alpine run over Goat Pass.

If there is one thing that keeps John Walker motivated to overcome the stresses, strains and body aches that come along with the ageing process, it is the encouragement from the Wanaka sporting community, particularly multisport.

Walker said he followed his family into multisport events in his 50s, dipping his toes firstly into events such as the Ghost to Ghost at St Bathans and the Gold Rush.

He has also become a regular in the Luxmore Grunt and Queenstown’s Peak to Peak.

"For my 60th birthday, my family gave me a multisport boat. I thought, well, I’ve got that. I better give it a proper crack."

The attraction of the Coast to Coast emerged in 2005 when he and Heather were part of a support crew for eldest daughter Vanessa, who cut the course out in a smart 15hr 40min 1sec.

"It’s a great environment and I thought I would give it a go," he said.

He first contested the 2009 two-day individual race, completing the 243km journey in 18hr 6min 43sec.

Walker runs up the finishing chute of the 2018 Coast to Coast at New Brighton.
Walker runs up the finishing chute of the 2018 Coast to Coast at New Brighton.
"It was quite an initiation as it included a jet boat rescue in the Rock Garden section of the 70km kayak stage down the Waimakariri River.’’

He returned in 2013, as the oldest competitor, completing the course in 17hr 59min 29sec to finish second in the vintage category.

A third crack at the two-day individual race came in 2015, when he finished in 18hr 10min 40sec, and he last raced the two-day individual event in 2018, finishing in 17hr 20min 33sec.

He and James finished third in the family category in 2020 in a smart 12hr 52.53sec, and the following year, John and Carolyn were 13th in the family section in 15hr 49min 8sec.

"After I did the first one, I thought, ‘jeepers, maybe I could give it a better crack’.

‘‘Then, after another couple, I thought the best way to do it was with the family. So it’s become pretty much a family affair."

Walker will paddle his 60th birthday gift again down the 70km of unforgiving Waimakariri River between Mt White and Gorge Bridge.

The JKK craft is also no spring chicken but he has great faith in it completing the journey.

"It’s had almost more maintenance and replacement parts than me, actually, but it’s still pretty much in one piece thanks to some really handy people here in Wanaka, who have helped me keep it afloat.

‘‘So we’re quite attached, really. After 16 years, it’s been a bit of a mistress to me."

A recent addition has been a road bike that comes with an electric gear shift.

He cottoned on to the idea when hiring a similar model while holidaying in France and riding the Mont Ventoux mountain stage of the Tour de France, a climb of 1912m, with son James.

Walker said his motto for an event like the Coast to Coast was "completion not competition’’.

He is aware that the event comes with a price — like missing a wedding anniversary.

"This obviously involves quite a bit of time and I have to consider my long-suffering wife as she has been incredibly supportive."

By Wayne Parsons