The Woman Changing the Face of Adventure Racing

LockerRoom

Jodie Fa’avae pursued adventure sport before such a term even existed. Now she’s at the helm of a movement that’s changed the way Kiwi women view adventure – and themselves.

Jodie Fa’avae vividly remembers the moment when she first saw a bike “that could go off-track.”

As a student at Nelson’s Nayland College, Fa’avae biked from Nelson to Kaiteriteri with a group of friends on some of New Zealand’s first basic model mountain bikes to celebrate school finishing – an adventure in itself.

Soon after, Fa’avae had entered – and won – her first mountain bike race in 1992.

“I crashed once [in that first race] but carried on – to be national champion for seven years. Mountain biking was a big part of my life, ”says Fa’avae.

But the victories weren’t enough. Following a season of snowboarding and a course in outdoor leadership, Fa’avae found herself working on the water as a sea kayak guide in the Abel Tasman National Park.

“During that time, I realized what I really wanted to do – to share with others my love and passion for the outdoors,” she says.

Fa’avae met her future husband, Nathan, at Nayland College when he changed school for his last year. They’ve been together ever since and now have three teenage children.

Nathan Fa’avae has won six world adventure racing championships and captains the New Zealand adventure team. In March, he led Team Avaya, undisputedly the world’s best adventure racing team, to win another GODZone Adventure race. The couple have competed in adventure races together.

But now Jodie and Nathan Fa’avae organize the world’s largest adventure race, geared purely for women.

Jodie Fa’avae is a seven-time national downhill mountain bike champion. Photo: supplied.

Since the Spring Challenge started in 2007, over 10,000 women have formed teams of three to race in some of New Zealand’s most beautiful locations.

The Spring Challenge has evolved from a single experimental event into a way of life.

“It’s really amazing how you can create a community of all these women. They don’t need to be super fit, just keen on a great adventure,” says Jodie Fa’avae.

“With lockdowns and uncertainty, it’s a pretty challenging time right now. Mental health is so important. We need to connect to nature – we need to get back to the basics. Just being outside is such a huge help to people.”

It was a Fa’avae family conversation back in 2007 which led to their decision to set up an events company.

Jodie remembers her positive reaction when her world adventure racing champion husband proposed an event challenge that should cater just for women who had no experience in adventure sport.

Designed for beginners, the new challenge would create that first experience in a safe, supportive environment. In a new South Island location each year, the event would see teams take on a top-secret course combining three disciplines with orienteering, announced only the night before.

The point of difference? Each three-woman team of novices would hike, bike and paddle the course – and cross the finish line together.

“We called it the Spring Challenge,” says Jodie Fa’avae.

Jodie Fa’avae (left) welcomes home a team of competitors in the Spring Challenge. Photo: supplied.

With two young daughters and one son, Fa’avae had always wondered what opportunities would look like for wāhine with interests in sport and recreation – what would New Zealanders embrace?

“I wondered how many women would be keen. I knew I was keen,” she says.

At the inaugural event in September 2007, the youngest Fa’avae, Tide, had just turned one. Her grandparents were on duty while her mum and dad delivered the first Spring Challenge at Hanmer Springs with 300 participants.

Ten years on, in Geraldine, 600 teams – 1800 women in total – turned up at the start. At that moment, New Zealand’s Spring Challenge became the biggest adventure race in the entire world.

“It started to get too big,” Fa’avae reflects, so in 2018 they pulled the entry cap back to 480 teams. At the same time, their North Island sister event, the Spring Challenge North, was gaining traction.

Within minutes of the 2019 Spring Challenge entries being released, 1440 women snapped them up. For five years straight, all 480 team entries sold out.

As with all events around the world – there has been an impact through Covid – this continues to be a winning formula.

Fa’avae says 1488 women of all ages have entered this year’s event at the end of September.

This year’s venue is Te Anau. “The course, the terrain and epic location, will make this event reach the highest levels of grandeur,” the Spring Challenge Facebook page says.

The even went ahead in Greymouth last October, and in spite of the pandemic, the event had only 100 fewer participants than in an average year – proving its resilience.

The inaugural Summer Challenge 2020 was to be held in Nelson however was delayed and held in March 2021 instead. The Spring Challenge North Island event scheduled for October 2021 for Napier was delayed for a year.

From an event organizer’s point of view in this time of pandemic, the suspense and shuffling are incredibly stressful. But the sense of community, and responsibility, fuels the Fa’avaes’ determination.

“It’s so important that people are able to keep doing things, to keep looking after themselves. We’ve tried to make sure there’s something to look forward to,” says Jodie Fa’avae.

Jodie Fa’avae is proud of the ripple effect the Spring Challenge has on women’s fitness and wellbeing. Photo: supplied.

The success of the now iconic Spring and Summer Challenge events, however, pales in comparison to the momentum.

Across the South Island, significant growth in participation amongst women running, cycling and paddling represents the “ripple effect” of the series, now 15 years running.

Fa’avae agrees the impact is more than they can measure on the day. It’s a movement – sustainable and undeniably linked to better health outcomes over time.

“It doesn’t matter how fit you are. It’s about being with like-minded people and sharing our beautiful outdoors. I love the ripple effect it has,” she says.

Over the same time the Spring Challenge has grown, so has traffic on tracks and trails and waterways, with women often traveling in twos and threes.

New Zealand adventure racing legend Sophie Hart, who races with Nathan Fa’avae in Team Avaya, agrees.

“If you go back 15 years ago, it would have been so strange to see three women out and about,” Hart says. “Now you go to rogaines, and most participants are women. That’s because of the Spring Challenge – there’s no other reason for it. “

Forty-eight-year-old Fa’avae laughs.

“You can always hear the girls before you see them. They’re not going so fast they can’t talk. The positive energy of those women – it’s everywhere,” she says.

“There are mums doing it, and now their daughters have got into it.”

This ethos of self-care, where keeping active equals keeping healthy, is close to Fa’avae’s heart and home life.

Early this summer she kept her commitment to head away with friends for the ultimate girls’ getaway.

“I like to walk the talk, so I set myself the challenge of a mountain biking mission in November. I planned my own little Spring Challenge with three other girls – we rode the Paparoa, the Old Ghost and Heaphy tracks,” she says.

Fa’avae and daughter Tide (now 15) along with two of Tide’s friends, biked the Heaphy together over the spring school holidays last year. When it comes to intergenerational outings, she says it’s about normalizing a sense of adventure.

“They can achieve so much more than we think,” she says.

It’s important for Jodie Fa’avae to keep ‘walking the talk’ and reconnecting with the outdoors. Photo: supplied.

Fa’avae has always been committed to “walking the talk.” She recognizes the impact of outdoor adventures on the lives of her friends.

“The challenges you face together create a deeper connection and bond,” she says. “Connection and friendships really help you get through tough times.”

She says the power of participating – having a go and having fun – is New Zealand’s best medicine.

“We’ve got some pretty big challenges we’re facing. That’s what life’s really about. To get through moments that are hard – supporting each other.”

Since 2003, the Fa’avaes have raised a family on adventure. Since 2007, they have taken New Zealand along for the ride.

Last year, the Fa’avae family hiked the trails of Stewart Island. Their sense of connection to the outdoors means that every run, paddle or bike is not a training exercise. It’s a way of life.

Jodie Fa’avae has loved watching New Zealand wāhine walking the talk too.

“Right from the beginning, it was what people wanted or needed. I have so many stories of women who connected by taking on a challenge together,” she says.

“In the past, my friends and I had nice social outings where we’d go and share a meal. However, to share an adventure and a journey – where you share an adventure memory – is really special.”

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